Game of the Week: Razorbacks battle Tide for SEC supremacy
Arkansas believes it has closed the gap since last year's 35-7 loss to Alabama
Ryan Mallett and Hogs defense gained confidence from Georgia win last week
Tide know they face a threat and won't rest on laurels of being nation's top team
Earlier this month, Alabama coach Nick Saban said on his radio show that when considering teams for the BCS title game, voters must evaluate "the full body of work." If the Tide can survive their next three games -- at No. 10 Arkansas, home vs. No. 9 Florida and at No. 12 South Carolina -- there will be no questioning their No. 1 ranking or body of work. Alabama has not faced ranked teams on three consecutive Saturdays since 1997, but this team is capable of surviving such a task.
The first hurdle may be the toughest. Waiting in Fayetteville is a team with revenge on its mind and a Heisman contender at quarterback. The Razorbacks were embarrassed by Alabama last year in a 35-7 loss, but feel they have closed the gap considerably in the past 12 months. Arkansas has beaten the No. 1 team in the nation four times, most recently LSU in 2007 (with a near-miss at Florida last year). The Hogs aren't expected to make it five, but Alabama will feel anything but comfortable inside a rowdy Reynolds Razorbacks Stadium on Saturday.
1. How much has Arkansas' defense improved? This was a popular topic heading into last week's game with Georgia, and the Razorbacks went out and cut the Bulldogs' scoring output from 51 in 2009 to 24 on Saturday. After an abysmal '09, Arkansas' defense now seems capable of carrying its share of the load. The Razorbacks lead the SEC with 4.0 sacks per game and have added speed to the secondary by shifting cornerback Rudell Crim to safety. And while the numbers are skewed by games against inferior opponents Tennessee Tech and Louisiana-Monroe, Arkansas ranks 10th nationally in total defense and fifth in scoring defense after three games. Facing the firepower of Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Julio Jones and Greg McElroy will certainly shift those statistics, but Arkansas can at least enter the game confident that last season's biggest weakness has been addressed.
2. Ryan Mallett's shot at redemption. Mallett entered last year's Alabama game with some gaudy statistics and promptly produced what still stands as his worst outing as a Razorback. Mallett completed just 12 of 35 throws for 160 yards and one touchdown and was intercepted once and sacked three times. "We didn't have the right mindset going into that game," Mallett said this week. "I don't think we went in believing we could win (and) they took it to us." Mallett showed plenty of poise last week, calmly driving Arkansas to the winning touchdown in the final minute of a 31-24 win at Georgia. It was a spotlight moment for the future NFL draft pick, and he delivered. Mallett has never lacked confidence, but coming through against Georgia gives Mallett and the rest of the offense momentum as they face their stiffest test to date.
3. Alabama won't rest on its laurels. One of the obstacles to defending a championship is the threat of a team losing its killer instinct. After three wins by at least 24 points, that doesn't appear to be an issue with the Tide. "We want to walk off the field every Saturday and have the other team have the mindset that they never want to play us again," Ingram said. Added McElroy: "We want to leave no doubt every time we step onto the field." Alabama knows it will face a tough test and tougher environment on Saturday, but this group appears just as hungry as last year's to get to the finish line unblemished.
Alabama enters the game as a seven-point favorite. The Crimson Tide have covered in seven of their last eight games outside of Tuscaloosa and are 5-1 against the spread in their last six SEC openers. Arkansas is 3-7 in its last 10 games against the number as a home underdog.
In last season's 35-7 Alabama win, the Tide defense dominated Arkansas' offense. Of the 58 plays with Mallett at quarterback, 32 gained one yard or less (55 percent).
SI.com NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline weighs in with his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup:
RB Mark Ingram, Alabama: The reigning Heisman Trophy winner also ranks as the best NFL running back prospect. Ingram is a complete ball-carrier who possesses the power to pound opponents inside and the speed to beat them around tackles. Scouts around the league have labeled the junior as an every down back for the next level. Grade: First-round prospect.
DE Marcell Dareus, Alabama: Like his teammate, Dareus is another multi-purpose junior prospect with a bright NFL future. He possesses the size and strength to hold down the defensive tackle spot in a conventional four-man line, yet also offers the athleticism needed to line up as a two-gap end in a 3-4 alignment. The upside for Dareus is unlimited, though scouts question his motor. Grade: First-round prospect.
QB Ryan Mallett, Arkansas: The rifle-armed pocket passer has all the makings of a franchise quarterback. Mallett makes all the throws, gets the ball through the tight spots and is large enough to withstand the rush. The junior is not NFL-ready just yet, though, as his inconsistent throwing mechanics often lead to wayward passes. Grade: First-round prospect.
WR Julio Jones, Alabama: Jones is a large target who can be a game-controlling receiver when focused on the task at hand. He possesses soft hands, a strong frame and deceptive speed. The junior also suffers from lapses in concentration that have prevented him from being the dominant receiver many scouts think he should be. Grade: First-round prospect.
Saban may list defense, defense and defense as his top three priorities, but his offense will be what helps him to his 28th consecutive regular-season win. Alabama is fully capable of winning a shootout with its dominating running game and passing attack (McElroy leads the nation in passing efficiency). Mallett will have his moments, but Alabama will survive. ALABAMA 38, ARKANSAS 31.