State of the Hogs: Sports Illustrated columnist thinks upset of No. 1 'Bama possible

By: Clay Henry
Published: Wednesday, October 5, 2016
Arkansas defensive back Josh Liddell (28) intercepts the ball intended for Alabama tight end O.J. Howard (88) in the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Arkansas defensive back Josh Liddell (28) intercepts the ball intended for Alabama tight end O.J. Howard (88) in the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

— When it comes to Andy Staples, there's college football talk and food reviews. He did both Wednesday at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club.

The Sports Illustrated sports writer (and food critic) was in between trips to Austin, Texas, and College Station, Texas, for the stop at the touchdown club. Just to be sure, there had to be a fine meal for his Fayetteville visit.

Staples loves Fayetteville food. He's written about the hush puppies at the Catfish Hole and the gourmet grilled cheese at Hammontree's. The double cut pork chops at Theo's get a top rating after his meal Tuesday night.

“They were perfect,” Staples said. “But I still think the best thing I've had here might be the hush puppies at the Catfish Hole. (Owner) Pat Gazzola let me scoop them and drop them into the fryer, but he wouldn't tell me the recipe.”

Getting that from Gazzola might be as tough as beating No. 1 Alabama, the task for Arkansas this weekend in Fayetteville. Staples thinks it can be done. He has that recipe.

“If you limit Alabama on the ground and make Jalen Hurts beat you with his arm, Alabama can be had,” Staples said. “It's a lot to ask, but Alabama is beatable.

“Someone is going to get them this year. It could be Texas A&M or it could be Texas A&M. But, this could be the week.

“You have a true freshman at quarterback, a true freshman at right tackle, a true freshman at tailback and you put them in a tough road environment. They could get rattled.”

That's what happened in the first half at Ole Miss a few weeks ago. Hurts was rattled, Staples said. But the Tide averaged nine yards per snap in the second half and scored three non-offensive touchdowns to roar back to a victory.

Alabama is still loaded on defense, but Staples said it's not quite the same defensive front as in some years. In fact, he said Texas A&M's pass rush is better than Alabama's. That doesn't mean the Hogs can run the ball on the Crimson Tide.

“I'm worried about Arkansas (being able) to run the ball against Alabama,” Staples said. “Alabama's defensive line is better than Texas A&M's. But Alabama's pass rush is not like Texas A&M's.”

Staples pointed out that Alabama has more spread in its offense this year with Hurt at quarterback, but it's still a better matchup for Arkansas.

“Stylistically, what they do is still better for Arkansas,” he said. “Alabama is still going to get in two backs and run straight at you. The Arkansas defense sees that every day in practice.

“I do think this is the year to get Alabama. Hurts is developing and will be a great quarterback next year. He may beat you with his arm then, but there are things that he's not able to do just yet.”

One of them is to take full use of tight end O.J. Howard. Staples said there isn't much difference between Howard and Arkansas tight end Jeremy Sprinkle.

“The difference is that Arkansas uses Sprinkle better,” he said. “I met with Bret Bielema today and one of the things I asked him was his secret for producing so many great tight ends, both at Wisconsin and Arkansas. He said he wouldn't tell me because he didn't want that out.

“O.J. and Jeremy were about the same size. Both are pretty good blockers. Jeremy is just used more in the passing game.

“The thing you have to worry about, Howard is always there. He may not be in the plan as much, but you still have to prepare for him.”

Staples went through the college football landscape with the potential of job openings at LSU, Texas, Southern Cal, Oregon and Auburn. Who are the top candidates to fill those spots?

“Tom Herman is the name on every list,” he said. “You want to be Tom Herman or his agent because those are lucky men and going to be very rich at the end of this season.”

There are other candidates to fill those spots.

“Western Michigan's P.J. Fleck is one who I think will get a chance at one of those jobs,” Staples said. “He inherited a dumpster fire and has shown the ability to recruit.

“I also think Larry Fedora at North Carolina is very good. He'll get some looks. He was a close second at Florida when Jim McElwain was hired.

“Dan Enos here at Arkansas, I hate to tell you, is going to be one of those who gets a look. He's a great offensive coordinator and has head coaching experience.

“The good thing about that is that Bret loses good coaches and has made great hires with no drop off. He did that after losing Jim Chaney.”

Why didn't he include Louisville coach Bobby Petrino?

“There are a couple of reasons,” Staples said. “I think LSU would like Bobby, but he's got a $10 million buyout.

“We do know that Bobby has a bit of a wandering eye – and that may not have come out the way I meant it to come out – but he's got a special quarterback. If I had Lamar Jackson, I'd probably wait another year and his buyout drops next year.”

Staples has a top four of Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson and Washington this week.

“Ohio State reminds me of 1987 Miami, losing a lot of great players, but replacing them,” he said. “Ohio State has a lot of redshirt sophomores playing. They spent their freshmen year on the scout team getting beat up by the national champs, and playing on special teams last year. They are experienced at two important positions, quarterback and middle linebacker.

“I like Alabama and what Hurts is becoming. They are loaded on the perimeter. I wouldn't want to have to cover those guys.

“Clemson still has to go to Florida State, but this isn't the Florida State we thought it was going to be. I love Clemson's defensive line.

“Washington has the most important ingredient and football is all about math. It's a game of your four rushers against five offensive linemen. We saw that in the Super Bowl. If your four beat those five, it's over. They have that at Washington.”

Plus, Staples said the Huskies have his favorite on the 2016 all-name team.

“I love Psalm Wooching,” he said. “That's the sound their linebacker makes when he blows past an offensive lineman.”

Staples is rooting for chaos when the final four teams are picked by the College Football Playoffs committee.

“I'm a fan of an eight-team playoff,” he said. “I want the SEC to get in two teams, because when that happens, the other conferences are going to make them go to eight teams. I think the SEC will be fine with that. They'll say, 'We'll get in four teams and that will be awesome.'

“The tricky thing will be if Oklahoma runs the table and wins the Big 12. If Houston is sitting there undefeated with a victory over Oklahoma, then they are going to put in Houston. I guarantee that.”

Staples picked his favorite teams at this point in the season, then was asked to pick his favorite meal.

“That's like asking me to pick between my two children,” he said. “I can't do that.”

But then he did, pointing to the Red Bar in Grayton Beach, Fla.

“It's not on the menu, but it's a special for most of the year,” he said. “It's blackened grouper over grits and then I follow it up with key lime pie. And bring cash and expect to wait.”

There was pure joy in his eyes as he described that fare. There was also a special spark when he talked about what Bielema needed to complete his four-year rebuilding project.

“The next step is what Ric Flair always said, 'You have to beat the man,'” he said. “He also said, 'Woo,' when he said you have to beat the man. He has to take the next step and that's beating Alabama.

“I was there in 2012 when Alabama put that pounding (on Arkansas). I look at how far they've come under Bielema. If they can pull off an upset this weekend, it will be validation. But, it's not going to be easy.

“Alabama doesn't beat itself. I asked Bret this morning, 'How maddening is it to play a team that never makes a mistake?' They are not going to give you a game. You are going to have to come and take it.”


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