Is Alabama for real? Arkansas hosts No. 9 Tide

Published 7:53 am Friday, September 19, 2008

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – For the fifth straight season, Alabama is 3-0 — and nobody needs to tell the Crimson Tide how little that means.

“We are not disappointed in where we are but we are not where we can be,” coach Nick Saban said. “It is like an iceberg when you can only see a little at the top and there is a lot underneath the water. We just have to try and keep uncovering more and more of it and get more guys playing winning football.”

Saban was hired to bring winning football back to Alabama — and fans want more than just September victories. Last year Alabama started 3-0 and finished 7-6. In 2006, a 3-0 start became a 6-7 season and the end of Mike Shula’s coaching tenure.

There’s a sense that this year is different. Alabama is ranked No. 9, its first AP top 10 appearance since the end of the 2005 season. The Crimson Tide routed Clemson 34-10 in the opener.

Alabama begins Southeastern Conference play at Arkansas (2-0) in Fayetteville on Saturday.

“This is the SEC opener, on the road,” defensive end Lorenzo Washington said. “It’s like a must-win. … This would be a big boost to our team if we go into Arkansas, do what we’re supposed to do, and come out with a ‘W.'”

With five SEC teams in the top 10, Alabama doesn’t want to fall off the pace early. Neither does Arkansas, which faces Texas, Florida and Auburn after this game. The Texas game was supposed to be last weekend, but it was postponed because of Hurricane Ike.

The Razorbacks (2-0) are where Alabama was last season — adjusting to a new coach. Bobby Petrino took over in December after Houston Nutt left. Expectations are mild for this team. Star running back Darren McFadden went to the NFL, and Arkansas is relying on inexperienced players.

The Razorbacks had to rally to beat Western Illinois and Louisiana-Monroe. Quarterback Casey Dick has thrown the ball well, and center Jonathan Luigs anchors the offensive line.

Luigs will line up across from Terrence Cody, a 360-pound nose tackle. Alabama is allowing under 43 yards rushing per game.

“Alabama’s a good, physical, fast team on defense,” Dick said. “They obviously know what they’re doing.”

Arkansas is no longer the run-heavy team it was under Nutt. The Hogs rely on their quarterback a lot more now. McFadden is gone, and running back Felix Jones also turned pro.

“It’s definitely different. Those guys seemed like they were at Arkansas for a while, and dominating teams every week,” Alabama safety Rashad Johnson said. “They are going to have a great attack set up for us. We are going to do our part and get our mind right to defend their offense.”

The Alabama game has been an early litmus test for Arkansas in recent years. The Razorbacks beat the Crimson Tide in double overtime in 2006, the third victory in a 10-game winning streak that sent the Hogs to the SEC title game.

The Razorbacks lost their first three SEC games last season, including a 41-38 heartbreaker at Alabama. Arkansas fell behind 31-10, then scored four straight touchdowns to take the lead. Alabama won it on John Parker Wilson’s short touchdown pass with 8 seconds left.

That was an early triumph for the Crimson Tide in Saban’s first season as Alabama’s coach, but the momentum didn’t last. This year Wilson is a senior, and he’s completing over 62 percent of his passes. Glen Coffee is averaging 6.5 yards per carry.

Combine all that with a bruising defense, and it’s easy to believe Alabama’s for real.

It’s still early, though. Alabama still has plenty to prove in the SEC.

“We are very anxious,” Johnson said earlier this week. “It was a different feeling this morning watching film. There was a lot of excitement and emotion after the meeting.”