No. 1 Alabama begins rough road at Arkansas
All offseason, this has been the four-game stretch circled for No. 1 Alabama as the treacherous portion of a road back to the College Football Playoff for the defending champion Crimson Tide.
Saturday begins a five-week stretch in which undefeated Alabama plays at Arkansas, at Tennessee, hosts Texas A&M, and plays at LSU after the bye week.
The Crimson Tide (5-0, 2-0) starts things off with a trip to Arkansas for a date with the 16th-ranked Razorbacks (4-1, 0-1) at 7 p.m. ET Saturday at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville (ESPN).
Alabama has owned this rivalry during coach Nick Saban's tenure, but it hasn't always been easy in the games played in Fayetteville.
Though the Tide coasted past the Razorbacks 52-0 in 2012, the 2010 game was decided by only four points, 24-20, and two years ago it came down to just one point with the Tide escaping 14-13.
This year the Razorbacks look to be one of the few teams that can compete with Alabama physically.
"They got a big offensive line," Tide linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton said. "It's going to be a good, hard-fought game, so we got to eat our Wheaties this weekend. Be ready to play some physical football."
Saban is stressing the threat Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen poses for his defense. In his first year as a starter, Allen has completed 67.6 percent of his passes for over 246 yards a game with just two interceptions in 121 attempts against 12 touchdown tosses.
"Their quarterback is playing great for them" Saban said. "They are very well coached. They have some very good skill players, good wide receivers' and good running backs."
Rawleigh Williams (111.8 yards a game rushing) and Devwah Whaley (6.7 per carry) give the Hogs a one-two punch at running back, and veteran wide receiver Keon Hatcher is averaging over 20 yards a catch.
Wide receiver Jared Cornelius has four touchdown catches, wide receiver Drew Morgan has 28 receptions, and tight end Jeremy Sprinkle has 15 catches and could become a key outlet against Alabama.
One big key for Arkansas will be protecting Allen. Bama has 17 sacks in five games with defensive end Jonathan Allen leading with 4.0 and linebacker Ryan Anderson right behind with 3.5 for the season. Allen took a lot of hits in Arkansas' loss to Texas A&M as the Aggies outscored the Hogs 28-7 in the second half of their 45-24 win.
Defensively, the Razorbacks have to avoid giving up the big play, a problem season long. Texas A&M was able to score quickly in the second half two weeks ago, and though Alcorn State couldn't generate points the Braves did manage to pile up yardage in chunks.
That will not be easy to do with the Tide going to a spread offense with freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts running the show. Hurts is actually second on the team in rushing with 276 yards to the 356 of running back Damien Harris and 250 of running back Joshua Jacobs.
"He can hurt you," Bielema somewhat sheepishly said of Hurts. "I'm sure that's not the first pun thrown out at you."
But it's not just his rushing ability that makes the Tide so explosive. Hurts has completed 62.2 percent of his passes with only one interception in 135 attempts against seven touchdowns.
"I think they're using his strengths as good as anybody I've witnessed this year on film," Bielema said. "He's a very talented player and being used in the right way. And he's got some good players around him."
One of those is wide receiver Calvin Ridley, who has 35 receptions for 398 yards and three touchdowns. Tight end O.J. Howard (12 catches, 165 yards) is one of the nation's best.
All that said, one thing that Bielema doesn't want his players to do is to look at the Tide as a group of Supermen.
"Obviously, being Alabama and the team that they are there's going to be a certain focus on them," he said. "But I did urge those guys -- I said it Saturday in the postgame locker room and said it to them again yesterday -- I think probably the thing I've learned most from being in these games -- and it took me a while in my previous job, too -- when you're going up against a team of their caliber you really don't need an extra ordinary out-of-body experience. Just do your job."
There is such a thing as being too hyped up.
"The more you press," Bielema said, "the more you try making something more than it needs to be, the more you end up misfiring."