TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It's about that time. No. 1 Alabama is in the final stages of preparing for its showdown with Arkansas at home on Saturday.
The Crimson Tide will win if …
For the time being, winning is simply a matter of showing up and continuing to make progress. Though things looked shaky at first against Kentucky this past weekend, we saw Alabama steadily improving. Coach Nick Saban said he was proud of the way his team controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and how the offense was able to move the chains effectively in Lexington. He might pull his hair out if he sees the same number of turnovers, but past history says not to expect T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake to cough up the football again.
Though Arkansas presents a different set of challenges on Saturday, what it really comes down to for Alabama is staying the course. After all, Arkansas allowed 52 points to South Carolina in its last game. It's safe to say Alabama's offense is capable of the same type of success. The front seven will be tested with the Razorbacks' running game, but the Tide know the drill. Day after day in practice it goes up against an offense that similarly prides itself on a physical style of play. As long as Brandon Ivory holds down the middle and C.J. Mosley, Trey DePriest and Co. wrap up and don't allow many broken tackles, Alabama should be fine.
The Razorbacks will win if ...
Arkansas' best shot of coming out of Tuscaloosa with the upset victory rests in the hands of its two talented running backs. Jonathan Williams, who was a third-string back a year ago, is among the top 10 rushers in the SEC today. And he's essentially a sidekick to Alex Collins, who has put up monster numbers his freshman year, ranking 11th nationally in rushing yards. If those two can move the chains, control the clock and find the end zone a few times, they'll have half the recipe for a win. That is, of course, if Brandon Allen can give Arkansas some production at quarterback.
The other half of the equation involves Arkansas' defense. There are some good parts there with Chris Smith rushing off the edge and Tevin Mitchell at cornerback, but there are also some major holes. South Carolina nearly exposed them all when it hung 52 points on the Razorbacks this past weekend. It doesn't get any easier as they'll have their hands full again on Saturday with AJ McCarron and his group of talented wide receivers. If Arkansas can't slow down Alabama's offense and create a few turnovers, it won't matter what Collins and Williams do.
Arkansas players to watch
RB Alex Collins: When Bielema took the job at Arkansas, we knew he was going to put a major emphasis on running the football. What we didn't know was who would be the one to shoulder the load. Well lo and behold it was a true freshman. Collins, a former four-star recruit from Florida, who stepped in and was an immediate success, setting an NCAA record by becoming the first freshman to rush for 100 yards or more in his first three games.
C Travis Swanson: Bielema didn't hesitate when he named Swanson as one of his top two players at SEC Media Days a few months ago. The senior isn't a household name because of his position, but he's a Rimington Trophy candidate for a reason. A team captain for the third straight season, he's the heartbeat of the Arkansas offense.
DE Chris Smith: Alabama hasn't faced an elite pass rusher like Smith yet this season. The 6-foot-3, 268-pound end was an honorable mention choice on the All-SEC team a year ago with 13 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. Now a senior, he has picked up where he left off, leading the team with six sacks and eight tackles for loss.
Alabama players to watch
LB C.J. Mosley: This is the type of game Mosley returned to school for. He has shown how dominant a force he can be against spread teams, but the question mark has always been how he holds up against traditional offenses that run between the tackles. Well, Arkansas is as old school as they come.
OT Grant Hill: Boy, Hill got quite the tongue-lashing from Saban for his penalty against Kentucky this past weekend. But really it has been the one noticeable hiccup since the true freshman has come on at right tackle the past few games. As he continues to develop, one has to ask whether Austin Shepherd is in danger of losing his job starting at right tackle.
CB Bradley Sylve: It looked like Eddie Jackson had the starting job to himself after back-to-back solid performances against Colorado State and Ole Miss. But an injury and a setback in his development thrust Sylve, a third-year sophomore, into the starting lineup against Kentucky. He played well and could start again this week.
10: Arkansas freshman running back Alex Collins runs hard. Thirty-seven percent of his rushing yards have come after contact and he leads the SEC in broken tackles with 10.
216.3: It will be a significant change of pace for the Alabama defense against Arkansas. The Tide's previous six opponents have averaged 28.6 carries and 86.7 rushing yards per game, compared to Arkansas' per game average of 39.6 carries and 216.3 rushing yards.
5: The streak of quarters without allowing a touchdown ended for Alabama's defense at 14. But another impressive stat remains as the Tide extended its number of games allowing 10 or fewer points to five.