(Sports Network) For the first time since 1979 there will be a top-10 showdown in Fayetteville, as the 10th-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks play host to the top- ranked and defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide.
It is the SEC-opener for Nick Saban's Crimson Tide, who have made light work of their first three opponents, including a 62-13 rout of Duke on the road last weekend. Prior to that, Alabama played a pair of games in Tuscaloosa, outscoring San Jose State and nationally-ranked Penn State by a combined score of 72-6.
Still, Saban knows that SEC play is a whole different animal.
"This is sort of a new season, when you start playing in the SEC. This is a very good football team. Coach Bobby Petrino has done a very good job there and 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. They have a really good punt returner. They also have a really good punter and there are a lot of players on this team that are extremely effective. I think they have three receivers in the Top 10 in the conference in terms of receiving yards per game and that type of thing so they have some players that can make plays and they have a quarterback that does a really good job at executing their offense.
Petrino's Razorbacks were picked prior to the season to vie for an SEC West crown and will get the opportunity to take over the driver's seat with a win over Alabama. Arkansas opened up conference play last weekend on the road, outlasting Georgia in Athens, 31-24.
Alabama holds a 10-8 advantage in the series with Arkansas, thanks to wins in each of the last three meetings. A year ago, the Crimson Tide rolled over the Razorbacks in Tuscaloosa, 35-7.
Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram made his 2010 debut last week against Duke and didn't disappoint. The junior tailback sat out the first two games of the season with a knee injury, but made up for lost time, turning his nine carries into a staggering 151 yards, with two TDs. However, it is not as if the ground game was suffering in Ingram's absence, as Alabama has found it quite easy to move the ball on the ground (250.7 ypg) and through the air (291.3 ypg) this season. Ingram is certainly the go-to-guy in the backfield when healthy, but sophomore Trent Richardson (6.9 ypc, four TDs) is worthy of some touches as well.
Quarterback Greg McElroy has been efficient as well, completing 71.7 percent of his passes this year, for 705 yards and six TDs, with just one INT. His top target downfield is talented wideout Julio Jones (15 receptions, for 248 yards, two TDs).
The Alabama defense lost some key personnel from a year ago, but this year's version may be just as good. Thus far, the team is yielding just 6.3 ppg and only 253.3 yards of total offense. The back seven is extremely talented, led by LBs Dont'a Hightower (16 tackles) and C.J. Mosely (13 tackles) and Jerrell Harris (13 tackles) and DBs Mark Barron (12 tackles, one INT) and Robert Lester (10 tackles, two INTs and one fumble recovery).
The defensive front has been made whole again thanks to the return of All- American candidate Marcell Dareus. The 6-4, 305-pounder missed the first two games of the season serving a suspension, but returned against Duke and will be the leader the rest of the way.
Alabama may have the reigning Heisman winner, but Arkansas may boast of this year's recipient in junior QB Ryan Mallett. The 6-6, 240-pounder has played lights out in the early stages, completing 70 percent of his passes, for 1,081 yards, with nine TDs. Wideouts Greg Childs (19 receptions, for 254 yards, three TDs) and Joe Adams (15 receptions, for 344 yards, two TDs) have reaped the rewards of Mallett's strong play.
The only fault in Arkansas' game thus far is perhaps balance. The passing attack has been terrific (367.7 ypg), but comes at the expense of any kind of ground attack (116.0 ypg).
One of the real keys to Arkansas' fast start is the stifling play of the defensive unit. The Razorbacks have been particularly stingy when it comes to opposing aerial assaults, giving up just 144.3 yards passing per game, while showing a real penchant for sacking the quarterback (12 sacks in the first three games). It has been a group effort, with four players currently boasting of two sacks of more, led by senior LB Anthony Leon (19 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks). Junior Jerry Franklin (team-high 23 tackles, one sack) adds to the strong play by the linebackers, as does junior Jerico Nelson (15 tackles). Rush ends Jake Bequette (nine tackles, two sacks) and Damario Ambrose (seven tackles, two sacks) have done a nice job coming off the edges, while safeties Rudell Crim (13 tackles, one INT) and Tramain Thomas (12 tackles, one INT) have performed well in the secondary.
Petrino knows what is at stake in this game.
"We know it's a big week this week with Alabama coming in here. I think our players are excited about it; I know our coaches are. We have to make sure and prepare like we did a week ago with focus, energy and excitement."
The Razorbacks have allowed only two rushing TDs in their last 14 quarters of play, but that number is likely to change this weekend. This will be a great test to see just how far Arkansas has come, but unfortunately for the UA faithful, they will find out just how far they still have to go to take home SEC gold.