The top-ranked and defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide open up SEC play this weekend on the road, when they take on the Arkansas Razorbacks in Fayetteville.
The Crimson Tide have won 20 straight SEC openers dating back to 1992 and have definitely looked the part of a team determined to not only win the conference crown, but a third national title in the last three four years. Nick Saban's squad opened up the season with an impressive 41-14 rout of nationally-ranked Michigan and followed that up with a 35-0 shutout of Western Kentucky last weekend.
Arkansas went through a great deal of adversity in the off-season with the dismissal of Bobby Petrino. Still, under John L. Smith's guidance and a full array of offensive weapons, the Razorbacks were considered a real threat in the SEC. The season-opener presented its own challenges however, as Arkansas defeated FCS foe Jacksonville State 49-24. That was followed by last weekend's stunning home loss to ULM (34-31 OT), dropping the Razorbacks from a top-10 ranking all the way out of the national polls.
The loss doesn't change anything according to Smith in terms of Arkansas' goals.
"It has to be a positive week. We have to go to the field. We have to practice that way. We are still undefeated in the league. We still have the same goals in front of us to win an SEC Championship. We just have to bounce back and get it done. We have to prepare well and play well. That's where we will start."
Arkansas has won 12 straight at home and is 3-1 all-time against a defending national champion in Fayetteville. Alabama holds a 12-8 series advantage and has won the last four meetings, including a 38-14 victory in Tuscaloosa last season.
Alabama lost tailback Jalston Fowler for the season with a knee injury, but if any team in the country can assuage a loss like that, it is the Crimson Tide, who have one of the deepest backfields in the nation. Averaging 167.5 yards per game early on, Alabama will lean on tailbacks T.J. Yeldon (8.0 ypc, one TD) and Eddie Lacy (3.9 ypc, one TD).
The emphasis isn't solely on the ground game in Tuscaloosa anymore, as quarterback A.J. McCarron has been on point in the first two games. He has completed 62.5 percent of his passes, for 418 yards, with six TDs and no interceptions.
Kevin Norwood has proved to be the go-to-guy thus far, leading the team in receptions (6), receiving yards (145) and tied for the team lead in TD catches (2).
Despite the loss of several All-Americans to the NFL, Alabama's defense is still getting the job done, including last weekend's shutout of the Hilltoppers. The active Tide have already forced seven turnovers (three fumble recoveries, four interceptions).
Junior linebacker C.J. Mosley has been impressive in the first two games and could be the next All-American defender in Tuscaloosa. The 6-2 junior leads the team with 18 tackles, with one sack and one interception. The linebacking corps is bolstered by senior Nico Johnson (13 tackles).
The Razorbacks may test Alabama's defense with a passing attack that is netting 340.5 yards per game through two outings. All-American candidate Tyler Wilson is one of the nation's premier signal-callers and was playing like it (.638 passing, for 563 yards and five TDs against just one INT) prior to a head injury suffered against ULM last week that sent him to the sideline. Listed as questionable for the contest earlier in the week, there is a good chance now that Wilson will not suit up at all for the game.
Tight end Chris Gragg has emerged as Wilson's top target, leading the team in receptions (14), receiving yards (193) and TD catches (2). He will be asked to be even more of a relief valve this week if either junior Brandon Mitchell or redshirt freshman Brandon Allen are under center.
The ground game has been subdued thus far, averaging just 130.0 yards per game, but tailback Knile Davis (66.0 ypg) is as good as it gets in the SEC and will get better as the season wears on, coming off a lost 2011 due to injury.
The Razorbacks have shown themselves vulnerable to the pass this season, yielding a generous 319.5 ypg, contributing to the 436.0 yards of total offense relinquished per game. The team has recorded six sacks and 16 TFLs, but has only forced two turnovers.
Senior safety Ross Rasner has made plays all over the field, pacing the team with 20 tackles, while registering one INT and one forced fumble. Linebackers Tenarius Wright (19 tackles) and Alonzo Highsmith (15 tackles, one sack) are next in line.
Saban still knows Arkansas is a dangerous adversary regardless of last week's outcome.
"We are playing a really good Arkansas team. Regardless of what happened last week, that doesn't change how we feel and how we respect their players and the team that they have. They have a very good team. They had some very difficult misfortune in the last game that they weren't able to overcome. We still have to expect that we are going to get their very best performance. We need to have our very best performance if we are going to be able to play the kind of game that we need to play on the road to have a chance to be successful against what we think is a very good team."