It doesn't get much better than a Top 10 list with Top 10 teams. That's what we have this week with No. 1 Alabama traveling to No. 10 Arkansas. Sounds like a theme to me. It hasn't been like this at Arkansas in decades. I like the theme. I could give you a top 10 list of why I like it. I could come up with top 10 things to take with you to a tent pitched outside a stadium. Naw, there's enough here already.
1, People in Arkansas are talking football all week.
2. People on TV all across the nation are talking Arkansas football all week.
3. It's good for Ryan Mallett's bid for the Heisman -- if he plays well.
4. Students skip classes to sleep in tents outside the stadium. (That has to be fun.)
5. A red out is on the way. (Didn't we use to wear red automatically?)
6. We get to see that Bobby Petrino's focus is the same week in and week out, top 10 battle or not.
7. There are no tickets anywhere. That has to be good for the state of the program.
8. Just the idea that Hogs are in the top 10 at the start of the season points to improvement.
9. CBS is in town. No one has to hunt real hard for the channel number.
10. See No. 1. That's the start to the conversation. It's the finish to the conversation, too.
Then, there's the game. Nuts and bolts stuff. We do a top 10 things to watch during the game. It's more fun this week. Look back at No. 1 and 10 on the first top 10 list. It's what we are talking about before we read any top 10 lists of what to watch for during the game.
1. Ryan Mallett. It's where we start every week and this won't be any different. Watching No. 15 is the easiest and most fun way to watch a football game. When you are good at quarterback, your team always has a chance. The national experts are watching No. 15, too. If you did nothing else during this game, it would still be fun. I know some who watch him from the time he enters the field until he leaves. Alabama will be watching him, too. They'll be trying to hit him. If they do it enough, that's bad for the Hogs. Simplistic, yes. But it's at the core of this game. Of course, Arkansas will be trying to hit Alabama QB Greg McElroy. No one has done that much. The team that hits the other QB the most has a good chance to be successful.
2. Pass protection. Alabama probably makes it's living on the ground, but there still are going to be some important pass situations. Can the Tide protect McElroy? It's much more important when the Hogs have the ball. Can they keep Mallett safe? Alabama coach Nick Saban loves to blitz and do it from different angles. Bama has not been a pressure team so far this season. They've had relied on coverage. The Tide is last in the SEC in sacks. But that might be fool's gold if you think you've got Bama figured out. This might be the day Saban rolls out a few more blitzes. This is an inexperienced Bama defense, but the talent is still there. There are still plenty of prized recruits on the defense and they will come after Mallett.
3. The atmosphere. It would be wrong to not stick something about the fanfare in this list. It's what makes college football the best game on the planet. The pagentry, the excitement, the bands and all the trimmings will be out in full force. Enjoy. It's worth the price of the ticket all by itself. Heck, the blimp is even in town. Parachutes will be tumbling into the stadium during the pre-game. The students will be acting crazy. It's got to be in this top 10. Don't spend all of your time watching. Yeah, you can get mesmerized with what happens in that five-hour window Saturday. Cut loose and have some fun while you watch and be a part of what promises to be a fun day. You could be part of history.
4. Intangibles. I can make this a list all by itself, too. There are so many things to watch here. Which team lets the magnitude of the game get them out of their element is a big item. Can they just do what they do, as Bobby Petrino calls it. Alabama has been in this setting more over the last couple of years, but there are new players in a lot of key roles for Alabama. They have some freshmen in special team spots. There are nine new defensive starters. The Alabama right offensive tackle is a freshman. How will all those newbies react in their first SEC road game. It's still early in the season. Who is right about each of the team? Are they really top 10 teams, both of them. Perhaps this is the week when we see what we have on both sides of the ball on both sides of the sideline. I don't think we know everything about either team. Alabama has played a decent Penn State team, but the other foes have been San Jose State and Duke. Not much to find out there. The last intangible, are the Hogs loose? It's a big, big game, but it's a free shot when you are hunting No. 1. Stay loose and enjoy the moment. The word out of the football camp is that this team is loose. They are going out there to play their game and have some fun. They are prepared to the point that they know they can win if they do their job. So being confident gives you the ability to be loose in a big game.
5. The Ultimate Matchup. It's hard to get away from the coaching battle that surely will take place when Arkansas has the ball. Nick Saban likes to say that Kirby Smart is the Bama defensive coordinator. Bobby Petrino calls Garrick McGee his offensive coordinator. But it's really going to be Petrino vs. Saban. It's a wonderful battle of wits. They are as good as they come at what they do as far as building schemes and exploiting matchups. Do not minimize this battle. Both of these coaches love it and are excited, but they won't say a thing about it -- not now or afterwards. Both sides are complex as far as schemes. It's going to be a wonderful thing to watch. It's never mind over matter. Matter is important. But both of these coaches have great weapons so it may come down to mind.
6. Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. These are two great ones. Richardson burned the Hogs last year with a long TD run. Every time they touch the ball, they are capable of doing it again. Arkansas can tackle well all day and slip on one play and it could be the difference in a tight game. The Hogs have to be careful on cutbacks. Both of these can slip out the back gate when you over pursue. The Hogs have to be careful on the spin move not to knock each other off of these great backs. There will be a time when one of them jumps into the Wildcat at quarterback. How do the Hogs react? Watch the UA safeties. They'll have to be great in their attention to detail and the way they take angles in tackling both of them. Arkansas is not as good at running back, but they can play better than what we saw last week at Georgia. Ronnie Wingo, Knile Davis and Broderick Green must step up to the challenge of playing opposite great players. They cannot be overshadowed. They have to hit the creases and make the right cuts and get to the first down stakes.
7. The Arkansas wideouts. Of course, Bama has a great set in Julio Jones and Marquis Maze. Jones will bludgeon you with his body. Maze will sprint by you. Can the Arkansas wideouts match them? Much was made in preseason about the fact none of the Arkansas wideouts were on an All-SEC preseason team. I can't argue with the choice of Jones. He's got a 5-star body and has produced big plays. He's helped by the fact that the Tide doesn't have to pass that much. They pick their spots with his talent, but make no mistake it's great talent. Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs have talent, too. But they didn't perform at a high level against Alabama last year. The Tide knocked them around pretty good and they didn't come up with many big plays. There were drops and also times the Tide just separated them from the ball with vicious hitting. How will the Arkansas wide receivers step up to this challenge? Are they better than Bama's wideouts? Do they play on the big stage? This may be more important than No. 7 on the list. It's a huge part of the game. I'll put special teams play and penalties here, too. One break in special teams or a key personal foul could be the key in a close game.
8. Physical presence. This will be a physical game. Which way to the pile move? Who has the most men? Who can sustain the physical hitting and still avoid mental mistakes? I expect there to be vicious hitting. Bobby Petrino has maintained that the Hogs are more physical on both sides of the ball. They concentrated in the offseason on that aspect. Could they win the man-on-man battles in the trenches? Which way does the pile move? There may be an eb and flow to this and it's worth watching for the entire game. It would be too simplistic to just say which team can run the ball, because that's not all that Arkansas does. They will have to be physical in pass protection. They've got to be physical on defense at the point of attack so the safeties and linebackers don't get caught up in just run stop. If they do, Greg McElroy will have an easy time with play action fakes and wide open tight ends and receivers.
9. Cornerback play. College football has turned into an edge game. What can your cornerbacks do with the new rules of no contact in the secondary and all-out holding in protections? Your cornerbacks are exposed at times. Arkansas had to play safeties behind its corners a lot last year, exposing the middle of the field. And sometimes the safeties had to play run defense and not be able to help there or in the middle of the field. This may be a day where safeties have to play tight to stop the run. Alabama makes you do that. What happens to the UA corners when that happens? Conversely, Alabama's corners are new. That's the soft spot in the defense. Interestingly, that's what Saban coaches. In a rare move by a head coach, Saban is Alabama's position coach for cornerbacks. How do DeQuan Menzie and Dre Kirkpatrick play against the UA wide receivers? You can watch these matchups and know they may be deciding the outcome of the game.
10. Turnovers. I'm not talking about apple or cherry here. I'm talking about fumbles and interceptions. Arkansas did not commit a turnover last week at Georgia. To beat No. 1, you have to play perfect and then get some help on the other side. Alabama had two turnovers in the red zone against Duke last week. The recipe for a big upset is to play turnover free and get some help. If Alabama does that, this is a game the Hogs can win. It's the key area. And it isn't just luck. Good coaches eliminate turnovers by teaching discipline with the ball and taking fewer risks. Alabama takes almost no risks in its offense. But there are still some funny bounces. This could be where Arkansas gains an edge. But it has to take care of its part of the deal. Maybe Jerry Franklin gets a strip of McElroy on a blitz? Maybe Rudell Crim steps in front of a slant intended for Julio Jones?
It's a lot to watch. A lot is crammed into these top 10 lists. Sorry for not keeping it to one list. It's just that kind of a week. There's stuff to ignore, too. Ignore some of those goofy Alabama fans that insist on telling you a Bear Bryant story. They can't resist. They act like he might pop out of the grave at any moment and coach again. They will be wearing a goofy hat like Bryant used to wear. I'm warning you, watch out.
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