Jalen Hurts, Damien Harris shine as No. 1 Alabama runs all over No. 16 Arkansas

Arkansas’s opportunity to notch the biggest win of coach Bret Bielema’s tenure and shake up the SEC West race on Saturday ended in a humbling defeat. Alabama dominated on both sides of the ball, outgaining the Razorbacks 10.1 yards per play to 5.6 and forcing five turnovers, including three interceptions and one pick-six from sophomore cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick, in a 49–30 win. The victory reinforces the Crimson Tide’s status as the best team in the country and extends their winning streak to 17 as they prepare for a rigorous set of conference games against Tennessee, Texas AM and LSU. The Razorbacks, meanwhile, fall to 4-2 and face another formidable division opponent at home next week in Ole Miss.

Here are three thoughts on what unfolded in Fayetteville:

1. This rushing attack can work

From Glen Coffee to Trent Richardson to Derrick Henry and everyone in between, coach Nick Saban has groomed a procession of sturdy running backs capable of shouldering the bulk of Alabama’s rushing attack. With Henry, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, moving on to the NFL this off-season, the Crimson Tide had no clear No. 1 lined up to replace him. Instead, they would lean on a combination of relatively unproven, but talented players. Through six games, it’s clear the approach is going to work. Alabama entered Saturday ranked sixth in the nation in rushing success rate and seventh in rushing SP+, according to Football Outsiders, with a 5.76 yards-per-carry average against Power 5 opponents. Sophomores Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris came to Tuscaloosa with glowing recruiting appraisals, but freshman Joshua Jacobs, the Crimson Tide’s third-leading rusher, was rated a three-star prospect. None of the three backs is asked to carry the ball to the point of fatigue, a concern raised toward the end of Henry’s record-breaking campaign. That allows Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin to deploy fresh runners at his discretion, in a manner resembling defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s ability to rotate defensive linemen to present different stunts and blitzes. Alabama knows well the comfort of a durable bellcow who can tote the rock 30 times a game, but a deep, if less battle-tested, backfield is a nice alternative.

The trio didn’t need to work too hard on Saturday. Arkansas’s run defense was suspect to begin with (115th in SP+), and it had its hands full just trying to contain Jalen Hurts, Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart and the rest of Alabama’s passing game. The Crimson Tide took advantage by racking up 264 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 7.8 yards per carry. That said, the Crimson Tide’s ground operation is checking the boxes it needs as it moves into the toughest portion of its schedule (more on that below), including providing a soft launch for a quarterback tasked with helming the nation’s best team in his true freshman season.

2. About that quarterback…He’s pretty good!

There wasn’t much concern over Alabama’s quarterback situation entering this season. Under Kiffin, the Crimson Tide have proven they neither need a certain style nor caliber of passer at the position to win a lot of games. Blake Sims? Jacob Coker? Next man up. A battle for the top spot on the depth chart waged on throughout the off-season, with no clear indication who was in front heading into the Crimson Tide’s opener against USC. Redshirt freshman Blake Barnett got the call, but he was quickly displaced by Hurts, who has since held onto the job and is showing no signs that he’s on the verge of losing it. Saturday might have been his most impressive outing to date. In an inhospitable road environment that would have shaken most rookie signal callers, Hurts projected poise. With Harris, Scarbrough and Jacobs grinding down the Razorbacks’ front, Hurts took advantage of soft spots in their coverage down field. He recorded a season high in completion percentage (76.5), passing yards per attempt (14.9) and quarterback rating (228.5). Hurts also tacked on two rushing touchdowns and kept his cool despite having to deal with some nasty post-play activities. Arkansas doesn’t pose the sort of challenge Hurts will face from defenses such as Texas AM’s and LSU’s later this season, and there were a few ill-advised throws that Saban totally won’t freak out over when he begins reviewing the film the second he and his team boards the bus back to Tuscaloosa, but overall it’s hard to find fault with how the Channelview, Tex., native fared in an important game.

When Alabama decided on Hurts as its QB1 a few weeks back, it presumably hoped he would develop into a quarterback who could pilot Kiffin’s scheme efficiently and minimize mistakes. Hurts may blossom into something more than a mere game manager, though. His mobility adds yet another threat to Alabama’s rushing attack, and he’s made strides as a thrower with more repetitions. Hurts was shaky at times against Ole Miss on Sept. 19, for example. On Saturday he looked like a season vet ably harnessing a potent set of playmakers.

3. This is a nice start in a tough stretch

Alabama’s first five games mostly felt like a prelude to a month-long stretch that would define its season. With the exception of a Sept. 17 trip to Ole Miss, which felt ominous in large part because of the recent history between the teams, the Crimson Tide cruised against overmatched opponents. Yet Saturday’s matchup with the Razorbacks kicked off a string of four games that could really test Saban’s team. Next week brings a trip to No. 9 Tennessee, which nearly stunned Alabama in Tuscaloosa a year ago and seemingly has the football Gods on its side this season (Saturday notwithstanding). Seven days later, in what could turn into a de facto SEC West title game, Alabama hosts a talented, undefeated Texas AM squad coming off a double-overtime win over the Vols (don’t forget Aggies QB Trevor Knight knows just the right buttons to push to slay the Crimson Tide’s defense). After that, Alabama trips to Baton Rouge for its annual meeting with LSU, whose interim coach, Ed Orgeron, would love nothing more than to stun the national title frontrunners while enhancing his case, weak though it may be, to succeed Les Miles long-term.

The Crimson Tide probably don’t need to win all of these games to remain in the hunt for a College Football Playoff spot. Given the likelihood of other Power 5 conference producing champions with imperfect résumés, it’s safe to assume an Alabama team with one L would make the cut. Which of these squads could upend the Crimson Tide right now, given how well they’re performing, is unclear. Whatever happens over the next few weeks, getting past Arkansas without much fuss is a good first step.  

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