Arkansas’ issues mark another weekly talking point for Tide coach Nick Saban. He spent last week telling his players that Western Kentucky wasn’t a bad team. Now, he is back on the soapbox, warning his players about paying too much attention to what happened to the Razorbacks on Saturday. "Nobody here should be feeling warm and cozy about the other team’s circumstance or situation," Saban said. "We need to be thinking about what we need to do to be successful, regardless of who plays in the game. They have a lot of good players that are very capable of making plays and having success, regardless of who plays quarterback."
"We are playing a really good Arkansas team," Saban said. "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."
Alabama’s three fumble recoveries — all against Western Kentucky — is already nearly halfway to last year’s total (7). Linebacker C.J. Mosley said defensive coordinator Kirby Smart harps on that number "all the time." "He kept telling us we’re one of the lowest teams, as far as ranking in fumbles," Mosley said. "So to get three in one game, which hasn’t happened since I’ve been here, he may applaud us on it. I don’t know. We’ll take it either way it goes."
"We’ve done the same kind of emphasis and the same things to try to get turnovers that we did all last year," Saban said. "We actually in the offseason tried to visit people who were great turnover teams – whether they were in the NFL or in college – to see what were … doing. "We’ve been doing that for over a year now. Last year we didn’t get them. This year, we’ve gotten a few."
Since Alabama allowed six quarterback sacks Saturday, Tide offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland "has put a different mindset" into the linemen, according to right tackle D.J. Fluker. But the guy who got put on the ground behind the line six times by Western Kentucky — starting quarterback AJ McCarron — was busy looking at his own role in the pass protection problems. He said he held the ball too long at times. "Sometimes I feel like you’ve got to hold onto the ball longer if it’s not open right off the bat," he said after practice Tuesday. "You’ve got to try to create plays. Sometimes they guard everybody, and you try to make plays and it just doesn’t happen. Even when people think you’re supposed to get rid of the ball sometimes, it’s not always the case."
Regardless of which quarterback is in the game, Alabama is eager to play what linebacker C.J. Mosley dubbed the Tide's "Mind Games." It's equal parts chess match and caveman royal rumble. The defense will match wits as much as it will match the brawn of the Razorbacks offense. "Pretty much whenever he's checking, more than likely we're going to be checking too," he said. "Most times if we're in a blitz we'll show one thing but actually run another."
On Monday, two days after a 35-0 victory over Western Kentucky, Lester acknowledged that the Crimson Tide wasn't as focused last week as it should have been. Why? "I would say it was because Western Kentucky is a smaller team," Lester said. "I think a lot of guys didn’t look at them as seriously as they did games like Michigan or Arkansas. A lot of guys weren’t motivated like in a big game. We were coming off a big game and have a big game coming up, so a lot of guys weren’t motivated."
Including outside linebackers Xzavier Dickson and Adrian Hubbard lining up as defensive ends in four-man pass-rushing fronts, the Tide used 10 defensive linemen. Only two – junior defensive end Ed Stinson (36 plays) and senior defensive end Damion Square (35) – were on the field for more than half of Western Kentucky’s offensive plays. The interchangeable parts stand out. Often Alabama is reacting to offensive substitutions. It’s a rare play when at least one lineman doesn’t come out and another one comes in.
Complementing this is that Alabama’s cornerbacks spend about 90% of the game in a press coverage position, from which they either stay in press or can bail to a zone or off-man position. They do this because it threatens the offense and helps take away screens and quick passes, and they feel that if a defense doesn’t press it’s a huge advantage to the offense who is simply throwing routes on air. I have to say that having excellent corners like Saban has had at Alabama helps, but, as more of an offensive guy, I would much prefer my corners to show a lot of press (even if they bail a lot) and use the shuffle technique as opposed to the backpedal. There’s nothing easier than seeing a bunch of corners lined up at seven yards backpedaling at the snap; you can run just about anything at that, and they simply will not be able to react quickly enough.
A.J. McCarron will try to prevent an upset and take advantage of Arkansas' short-handed secondary while building off one of the best performances of his career. The junior matched a career high with four touchdown passes against Western Kentucky and completed 14 of 19 for 219 yards. McCarron didn't throw an interception for a fifth straight game but was sacked a career-high six times. "It is something that we have to get corrected. Our guys have to pay more attention to detail, focus on doing the little things right," Saban said. McCarron was touched only twice by Arkansas defenders in last season's 38-14 home victory. He completed 15 of 20 passes for 200 yards and two TDs in Alabama's fifth consecutive win in the series.
Chris Gragg has a specific, carefully designed role in the University of Arkansas offense, and he plays it well. The affable 6-foot-4 senior tight end provides a big target in the passing game and, coupled with Cobi Hamilton and Brandon Mitchell, creates mismatches for opposing secondaries. Gragg did it so well against Jacksonville State in the Razorbacks' opener (seven catches, 110 yards, two touchdowns) that he was the John Mackey Award's National Tight End of the Week. Gragg came back off that performance with another seven-catch game (for 83 yards) against Louisiana-Monroe. But in the aftermath of that game, a huge upset loss for the Razorbacks, Gragg has had to take on another role: team leader in tough times. "We know what people are saying about John L. (Smith, the Razorbacks' interim coach) but here in the Broyles Center, we are behind him 100 percent," Gragg said. "We know our coaches are going to come up with a great game plan, so it is going to be up to us to go out and execute it. "After the (Louisiana-Monroe) game especially, there were a lot of down faces," Gragg said. "We were very disappointed in ourselves. But we watched the film, we have buried it as a team and I think we are looking forward to Alabama.
On Saturday, it begins Southeastern Conference competition with a 2:30 p.m. CDT game at Arkansas (1-1). What's the difference? "Really just the hostility," junior linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "As far as our mindset and our preparation, nothing’s changed. We’re going to treat every game like it’s our last game, like a championship game, because that’s how everybody’s going to approach us. So we’ve got to come in, get focused up and be ready to play."
"We'll take them as if they're highly motivated and ready to roll," Johnson said. "They're going to want to bounce back. I guess we're the No. 1 team, and they've got a good chance of doing something special. So that's how they're going to be."
Wide receiver Kevin Norwood, who caught three passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns against Western Kentucky, appeared to be limited by a right leg injury. He did not wear a black, non-contact jersey, but he wore a sleeve on the lower portion of his leg during today's practice and was not participating in every drill.
"We know Arkansas is a great team," said junior Nick Perry. "They have a great offense, and they are part of the SEC. We are taking this week day-by-day, practicing what we do. Most importantly for this game, we need to go out there and play our best. We are treating this like any other game."
If recent history is any indication, Arkansas shouldn't count on doing a whole lot against the Alabama run defense. In the last 16 games against Football Bowl Series foes, the Tide have allowed only 703 ground yards, or 43.9 per game. Only Penn State (107) and LSU (148) have climbed over 100 yards in that span.
Already 0-1 against the University of Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks, the Arkansas Razorbacks say they aim not to be 0-2 against ULM after they meet Alabama. Nationally top-ranked and reigning national champion Alabama (2-0) is 1-1 Arkansas’ SEC opening foe on national CBS television at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium following Arkansas losing, 34-31 in overtime last Saturday in Little Rock, to 30-point underdog ULM. "Team morale is great," Arkansas junior quarterback-turned-receiver-turned quarterback Brandon Mitchell said after Monday’s practice. "We are not even thinking about what happened last week. What you can’t do is let a team you lost to beat you twice by still focusing on that team and not getting ready for the next game."
"You can't go off statistics," he said Monday. "You have to go off what we actually see. Western Kentucky was a very good defense and Arkansas is a very good defense. We have to prepare for Arkansas just like we needed to prepare for Western Kentucky."
"As backup, every week you prepare to start just in case something like this happens," Allen said after Tuesday’s practice. " So I’m going to prepare like I always do, be ready to go into the game and lead the team down the field for some touchdowns. "Every week I’m always with Tyler watching film, and in meetings. ... If it happens, I’m ready to go in."
Alabama has a 50-6 record since the start of 2008, with BCS national championships after the 2009 and 2011 seasons serving to burnish Saban’s reputation as the modern-day maestro of the college game. Utah Coach Kyle Whittingham’s team thumped Alabama 31-17 when the Crimson Tide played without ace left tackle Andre Smith in the 2009 Sugar Bowl, but Whittingham offers a gloomy outlook for Alabama’s opponents. "There’s no weaknesses," he said. "They pay attention to every detail in every aspect. ... There’s not going to be any place where they’re going to be vulnerable. That’s what you know going in."
Center Travis Swanson said the Razorbacks bounced back from their upset loss with a solid practice day Tuesday. "You’ve got to kind of get knocked down sometimes before you get woken up," Swanson said. "We’ve woken up. Coming out today, I felt like we just had great energy. Great positive energy that we really needed." "We’ve always fought through adversity, so we’ve just been working and just taking it one day at a time," said Brandon Mitchell, who was switched from quarterback to wide receiver in the preseason but practiced at both positions Tuesday. "Saturday’s behind us, and we’re just focused on Alabama now."
"Everyone expects to come in and play, but it’s not like that at every university, every big team," Perry said. "Everybody is used to being on the field. Everybody has a dream of coming in and being a true freshman, but sometimes you have to wait your turn and mature." Perry’s turn arrived in Alabama’s season opener against Michigan, when he filled in for an injured Lester throughout most of the second half. It was solidified against Western Kentucky, when he received the first start of his career at free safety, and should continue Saturday at Arkansas. "Great to be able to have my first start at home and have my parents there to watch," Perry said Tuesday. "It was a big-time experience that I’ll remember for the rest of my life."