FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas was outscored by Texas A&M, beat up at Florida and thoroughly embarrassed against South Carolina.
The first half of Southeastern Conference play has produced few highlights for a program clearly in the midst of a transition year under coach Bret Bielema. The Razorbacks knew their opening stretch in the SEC was going to be challenging and it has lived up to those expectations. It’s not over, yet, either.
But Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen looked at the bright side of the struggles as the Razorbacks prepared for their fourth straight game against a ranked opponent. There’s still an opportunity to make a big splash at top-ranked Alabama.
“We really wouldn’t have it any other way,” Allen said when asked about the wounded team limping into Tuscaloosa, Ala. “We’re trying to gain a lot of respect back, and what better way to do that than against the No. 1 team in the nation?”
There’s no doubt it would be an accomplishment if the struggling Razorbacks (3-4, 0-3 in SEC) brought the fight to the Crimson Tide (6-0, 3-0) in Bryant-Denny Stadium tonight. Arkansas is playing a team that has made it halfway through its 2013 schedule unscathed, keeping its hopes of continuing the program’s unprecedented title run with four championships in five seasons intact.
Planning to reclaim respect against Alabama and actually doing it are completely opposite things. Bielema said his team is “very, very motivated” to prove it even after suffering one of its worst SEC losses last week.
“Nothing’s changed for me,” Bielema said Thursday. “If you don’t plan on winning the football game, don’t come to practice (Friday). We’ll fill the plane up. We’ll fill your spot with someone that does expect to win. That’s where our mentality is.”
The Razorbacks have lost six straight in the series, including last year’s 52-0 loss in Fayetteville. Similar storylines have been present in nearly every loss: Arkansas struggles to move the ball against the Crimson Tide (137 yards last season), while Alabama has relied on big plays to score plenty of points in landslide victories (five scoring plays of 50 yards or more during the past two games in Tuscaloosa).
Only the 2007 (41-38) and 2010 (24-20) games were close. Alabama won the other four games (2008-09, 2011-12) by an average of 34.8 points.
Arkansas center Travis Swanson has been with the program for five of the losses and said the struggles against Alabama have been difficult to swallow. But he said the excitement for preparing for the Crimson Tide — which has been ranked No. 3 or higher in the previous for meetings with Arkansas— never changes.
“They’re obviously the No. 1 team in America for a reason,” Swanson said. “They’re very assignment sound, execute great. I’ve had a great deal of respect for them ever since I got here. It’s going to be a tough game for us, but it will be fun.”
The Razorbacks will throw a curveball, of sorts, at Alabama in this year’s meeting.
Arkansas aspires to build a system that resembles the Crimson Tide, winning games with a powerful run game and strong defense. It’s a new look for Alabama, which has grown accustomed to lining up against up-tempo spread offenses.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said earlier this week he knows how “physical and tough” tonight’s game will be against the Razorbacks. He said his team — which has had no trouble outmuscling opponents for years — must be ready for Arkansas.
“I think with the coaches that are there now this is one of the most physically tough teams that we have played in terms of how they run the ball and how they control the line of scrimmage,” said Saban, who bristled at talk about last year’s game or other previous meetings against the Razorbacks this week. “So this is going to be a very challenging game for us. I am certainly very concerned about our players being able to adapt and adjust to the kind of game it is going to be.”
Bielema said he put his team through full pads practices all week to emphasize the physicality the Razorbacks should expect against the Crimson Tide. It was a change of pace from last week, when he backed off the physical work before South Carolina.
Either way, Arkansas — which has scored 17 points in its past two games — must find a way to move the football against a defense that has been stingy since the shootout against Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in early September.
Alabama has allowed one touchdown in four games and ranks second in the nation in scoring defense (11.3 points). The Crimson Tide has not allowed a touchdown in three home games this season against Colorado State, Ole Miss and Georgia State.
“They play real physical and they’re a big team,” Arkansas running back Jonathan Williams said. “You have to go out there and you can’t turn the ball over against a team like this and you have to execute your game plan.”
Perhaps even more important for Arkansas is working its way through adversity after struggling the past three weeks. The Razorbacks have not responded when something has gone wrong in the losses, a trait that has shocked Bielema.
Allen knows Arkansas will face plenty of adversity on the road once again at Alabama tonight. He’s confident the Razorbacks — who want to avoid the program’s first five-game losing streak since 1997 — are eager to respond.
“I have no doubt in myself and in my teammates,” Allen said. “All it takes is one game for us to get it going again, and things will start clicking again for us.”