Arkansas, Alabama game of contrasting styles

It’s air-it-out Arkansas versus bullying `Bama in a meeting of

two ranked division rivals with title aspirations.

The No. 3 Crimson Tide vs. the 14th-ranked Razorbacks – it’s the

marquee matchup this weekend in the season-long Southeastern

Conference scramble.

Alabama and Nick Saban’s powerful defense welcomes Bobby Petrino

and Arkansas’s potent passing attack into Bryant-Denny Stadium

Saturday. Both teams are 3-0 and making their 2011 SEC debuts.

”We’re all pretty excited that we’re finally here,” Alabama

linebacker Dont’a Hightower said.

Early as it is, it’s hard to downplay these head-to-head

matchups in the SEC West, where half the teams – counting No. 2 LSU

– are ranked and the other half are struggling.

Arkansas had the Tide on the ropes last season before Ryan

Mallett threw two late interceptions. Beating `Bama in front of

some 102,000 fans and a national TV audience would be a good start

toward establishing the Razorbacks as legitimate contenders.

”It’s big, not only for our seniors but for our whole team and

our program,” Razorbacks safety Tramain Thomas said. ”We want to

get the win. That’s what our main goal is. We’ve been working on

that the whole offseason, and I think we’re capable of it.”

Petrino had his Razorbacks working on the Tide before its

opening week, simulating game preparation.

”They understood exactly what we were doing,” he said.

And why. The Razorbacks were pounded 35-7 two years ago at

Bryant-Denny by an Alabama team headed for a national title.

”I really felt like we learned a lot from that game,” Petrino

said. ”Even though we were hyped up, acting like we were

emotionally ready to play and excited about the opportunity, I

think deep down we didn’t believe we would win the game. What

happens then is you see a lot people do the same thing against

Alabama.

”You don’t execute and do the same thing that you normally do.

You drop passes, you overthrow a guy wide open, you trip on a line.

You’re out of your comfort zone, and you don’t play football the

way you can.”

The Razorbacks should be more accustomed to big-game atmospheres

by now. They’ve played in a BCS bowl and beaten a Top 10 team (LSU

last season). Another big step would be upsetting Alabama for the

first time in five years.

”Pretty much since last year’s game we’ve been wanting to get

back at these guys,” Thomas said. ”We have the opportunity, and

we have to seize the opportunity.”

Alabama has won 19 straight SEC openers, four of them against

Arkansas.

The SEC offers few more intriguing clashes of style. Arkansas

quarterback Tyler Wilson has a bevy of dangerous targets in the

league’s top passing offense. Jarius Wright, Cobi Hamilton and Joe

Adams all rank among the SEC’s top 10 receivers, and Greg Childs is

back after missing the Troy game following his grandmother’s

death.

”I haven’t seen all the wide receivers in the country, so it

wouldn’t be fair for me to say (they’re) the best group in the

country,” Saban said. ”But I guess I would like to see the group

that’s better than these four guys.”

He’s got pretty good guys to send against them. The Tide’s

loaded secondary is led by All-American safety Mark Barron and

cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick.

Alabama has allowed only one passing touchdown and ranks second

nationally in scoring defense and third in total defense. They

haven’t faced this kind of offense, though.

”It’s always a challenge going up against that many people that

can make plays,” Barron said.

The Tide offense should challenge one of the six remaining Bowl

Subdivision defenses that haven’t allowed a rushing touchdown.

Tailbacks Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy have run for 315 and

304 yards, respectively. Richardson has scored eight touchdowns and

Lacy is averaging 10.9 yards a carry.

It has taken plenty of the pressure off first-year starter AJ

McCarron, who has already weathered a road test against Penn State.

Like Wilson, he’s still undergoing on-the-job training. Unlike his

Arkansas counterpart, McCarron doesn’t have so many proven

receivers.

Petrino isn’t sure if the Tide has become more conservative with

a young quarterback or is just waiting to spring some surprises on

the Razorbacks.

”That’s always the thing you wonder when you go into this game

is what is it that they’ve shown and what is it that they’re really

going to do?” he said.

What about Arkansas?

”Yeah, you always wonder that, don’t you?” he said,

smiling.

AP Sports Writer Kurt Voigt in Fayetteville, Ark., contributed

to this report.