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September 24, 2010

Alabama puts SEC streak on line vs. Arkansas

Alabama hasn't lost an SEC game since Nov. 24, 2007.

It was at Auburn. Tide coach Nick Saban remembers it, as do the upperclassmen on the team who were part of the loss. Since that 17-10 setback, the Crimson Tide have reeled off 16 consecutive SEC victories, joining Florida's 1995 and '96 squads as the only ones in SEC history to register consecutive perfect league regular seasons since divisional play began in 1992.

But that streak is in peril as Alabama plays at Arkansas this Saturday. Many Razorbacks watchers feel this is the biggest game in Fayetteville since Arkansas beat Texas 17-14 in 1979.

For Arkansas, this is a program-defining game. The Razorbacks (3-0) are coming off a 31-24 win at Georgia that has many Hog-hat wearers thinking this may be the school's best team since joining the SEC in 1992.

The Hogs have played in three SEC title games (1995, 2002, 2006), but they have yet to win the SEC or play in a BCS bowl. In recent seasons, Alabama has become the measuring stick for SEC teams. The Hogs know that. They also know that they must topple the Tide to have any chance to move up the pecking order.

"We're going to stick to Razorback football," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "We're not going to do anything special; we're not going to do anything extra for this game. We're just going to come out and play fun. We have a great few weeks behind us, and we're just going to build on that.

"This is what you wake up for. When you're a child, this is what you dream about. You dream about games like this. You want to play the best. It isn't any good you working hard 365 and you aren't ever going to play the best. We want to play the best. And Alabama, they earned that right to be called the best team."

For Alabama, this game is about showing Arkansas who is boss. The Crimson Tide have been as dominant as their No. 1 ranking suggests, outscoring opponents 134-19 in building a 3-0 record.

"This is sort of a new season, when you start playing in the SEC," Saban said. "This is a very good football team. ... Their quarterback is obviously one of the leaders in the nation in passing and their defense is in the top 10 in a lot of different categories."

In addition to having national-championship and SEC-title implications, this contest also will be a Heisman showdown between Arkansas junior quarterback Ryan Mallett and Alabama junior running back Mark Ingram.

After missing the first two games of the season recovering from knee surgery, Ingram flashed his 2009 Heisman form by debuting last week in a 62-13 rout of Duke with 151 yards on nine carries. Last season, Arkansas put an extra man in the box to slow Ingram, and it worked. Ingram was limited to 50 yards on 17 carries, but it didn't matter. The Crimson Tide rolled to a 35-7 victory behind a career-high 291 yards (and three touchdowns) from quarterback Greg McElroy.

Like Ingram, Mallett struggled in this meeting last season, going just 12-of-35 for 160 yards with a touchdown and interception. But he looks like one of the best quarterbacks in the nation in 2010. Mallett is 70-of-100 for 1,081 yards, with nine touchdowns and two interceptions. At Georgia last week, he threw for 380 yards and three scores, capping a last-minute drive with a game-winning, 40-yard touchdown pass.

"I think they've got nine starters back on offense so they're better in terms of their consistency and execution," Saban said. "I think [Mallett is] more comfortable in what he's doing and what he's expected to do, not that he wasn't a very good player last year.

"I think Bobby [Petrino] does a great job with him in terms of game plan, schemes and getting him in the right things, so this will be a real challenge for this team this year but also an opportunity for them to learn, grow, develop and try to get better. I don't think what happened last year will have anything to do with what happens this year."

But the outcome will go a long way toward shaping the national-title, SEC and Heisman races.

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

Alabama rush offense vs. Arkansas rush defense: If Alabama runs wild, the Hogs have no chance. A dominant Alabama ground game will wear down Arkansas, open up the Tide's passing game and keep the ball away from the Razorbacks' dynamic offense for extended stretches. It will be a minor miracle if the Hogs can slow the most formidable 1-2 running back punch in the nation in Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. DE Damario Ambrose and LBs Jerry Franklin and Anthony Leon need huge games. Edge: Alabama

Alabama pass offense vs. Arkansas pass defense: The pass wasn't a strength in coach Nick Saban's first three seasons in Tuscaloosa. That's no longer the case. The only SEC passing game better than Alabama's is Arkansas'. Greg McElroy has matured into a savvy passer, and coordinator Jim McElwain continues to open the playbook for his senior quarterback. Hogs corner Ramon Broadway better have his head on a swivel, though he should get help from a pass rush that paces the SEC with 12 sacks. Edge: Alabama

Arkansas rush offense vs. Alabama rush defense: Can Arkansas beat Alabama without establishing a strong rushing attack? It will have to try with a deep collection of big, physical running backs led by Knile Davis and Broderick Green. The Crimson Tide defense remains a work in progress as it continues to develop chemistry. Still, a defense that ranks only seventh in the SEC against the run (120.7 ypg) shouldn't have issues sitting on the SEC's worst rushing attack (116.0 ypg). Edge: Alabama

Arkansas pass offense vs. Alabama pass defense: If the Hogs are going to have any chance to win, they must dance with who brung 'em. And that's the pass. Count on Ryan Mallett throwing the second he gets off the bus, looking to punch holes in a rebuilt Alabama secondary. That secondary will be tested trying to cover Greg Childs, Joe Adams and D.J. Williams. But Arkansas can expect the Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to dial up numerous blitzes in hopes of disrupting Mallett's timing and peace of mind. It's vital that the Hogs protect Mallett. Edge: Arkansas

Alabama special teams vs. Arkansas special teams: There are lots of good athletes on both sides of the ball. Arkansas excels at covering kickoffs and has a great punt returner in Adams. Alabama misses return man Javier Arenas, though Richardson is No. 1 in the SEC in kick returns (41.3 average with a touchdown). But as they did last season, the Tide has struggled covering kickoffs; the punting also has been suspect. If the game comes down to a big kick, things may be dicey since each team has a new kicker: Alabama with Cade Foster and Jeremy Shelley, and Arkansas with Zach Hocker. Edge: Even

Alabama coaching staff vs. Arkansas coaching staff: Petrino has built a strong staff, but it's no match for the group that Saban has constructed. Smart is one of the hottest defensive coordinators in the nation, a guy who has learned defense at the knee of the defensive master in Saban. McElwain is an underrated offensive mind who has updated the stodgy Tide attack with some good passing schemes. Look for him to be a head coach somewhere in 2011. One more big edge for Alabama: Saban's big-game resume trumps Petrino's. Edge: Alabama

X-factor: Arkansas needs to get some points on the board in the first quarter. In the past two meetings, the Razorbacks have failed to notch a point in the first quarter en route to being outscored 84-21. If the Hogs get off to another slow start, they have no chance of toppling the Tide.

Alabama will win if: McElroy needs to stretch the Arkansas defense. Everyone knows the Hogs have to slow the Tide ground game. While the Razorbacks make that a focus by bringing an extra man into the box, McElroy needs to throw deep to loosen the defense and open running lanes for Ingram and Richardson.

Arkansas will win if: The Hogs have to establish some semblance of a running game. Arkansas doesn't need to run for 200 yards, but it has to be effective when it does run -- especially on first downs. If the Hogs get into too many obvious passing situations, Mallett will be buried in an avalanche of blitzing Tide defenders.

EXPERT PICKS

Olin Buchanan: Alabama 34, Arkansas 24. Ryan Mallett and the Hogs' offense is capable of scoring a lot of points. But the defense still has to prove they can slow down Alabama's awesome running game..

Tom Dienhart: Alabama 35, Arkansas 24. I expect a decent amount of points. In the end, the Crimson Tide's superior offensive balance will be a big key, along with a defensive package that will mix in numerous blitzes to keep Mallett out of his comfort zone.

David Fox: Alabama 28, Arkansas 21. The Razorbacks will make the most of their home-field advantage and their elite quarterback, but Alabama will exploit the flaws that showed in Arkansas' win over Georgia last week.

Mike Huguenin: Alabama 31, Arkansas 21. This one is all about Ryan Mallett. He needs to be extremely sharp -- and extremely productive -- if the Hogs are to pull the upset.

Steve Megargee: Alabama 28, Arkansas 20: The Hogs will keep it interesting in front of their home crowd, but I don't believe Arkansas' defense is good enough to produce an upset.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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