Can Hogs show improvement against No. 1 Crimson Tide?

Photo: Walt Beazley, UA Athletics

Some have made fun of Alabama head coach Nick Saban’s comments about the Arkansas Razorbacks earlier this week.

They called it coach speech when Saban spoke of the Razorbacks as being a challenge for his top-rated Crimson Tide football team. They called it blowing smoke, and they likened Saban to Lou Holtz, who was also known to praise outmatched opponents in his various stops during his collegiate coaching career.

Arkansas (3-4, 0-3) vs. Alabama (6-0, 0-3)

When: 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19
Location: Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

On the surface they are right. No one who knows anything about college football would give the Razorbacks, which are on a four-game losing streak and have lost seven consecutive Southeastern Conference games, a ghost of a chance against No. 1 Alabama. And, no, I’m not going to attempt to convince you that the Razorbacks have a shot to win Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium because I really don’t believe they do.

But, when Saban gave his initial thoughts about Arkansas earlier in the week, it was not any different than the way he speaks of each team the Crimson Tide plays. He gave a concise analysis of what Arkansas attempts to do and what challenge that could present to his team. It’s part of his process in preparing his team, and it’s one of the keys he stresses with his teams, particularly since Alabama’s disappointing 2010 season.

By most standards, the 2010 Crimson Tide squad was a good team. They finished 10-3 and won a bowl game, but Saban knew that squad could have accomplished more. Had that team been more mature, the Tide might have been national champions four years in a row rather than winning just three of the last four.

Saban now preaches to his squad that it should respect the opponent, every opponent, even one as beleaguered as Arkansas.

It’s one of the reasons why his teams have rarely tasted defeat despite the high level of competition the SEC provides week after week. It keeps the Tide on their toes, and usually ensures that if Alabama loses, it’s because the other team beat them not because the Tide beat themselves.

A considerable part of Arkansas’ struggles come from the wounds the Razorbacks inflict upon themselves. Arkansas hasn’t been able to get out of their own way in SEC play. Quarterback Brandon Allen has thrown four interceptions in three games. Two were Pick 6s and another might as well have been. However, Arkansas’ issues aren’t as simple as blaming the quarterback. Everyone involved is complicit.

That was Hogs’ head coach Bret Bielema’s primary message when he labeled the Razorbacks’ performance in the 52-7 loss to South Carolina unacceptable from the top down.

In losses to Texas A&M and even Florida, the Hogs competed, despite the final scores. That did not seem to be the case against the Gamecocks on homecoming. Frankly, the game looked too much like the losses the program suffered through last season.

What I’d like to see Saturday is for the Razorbacks to play well enough to earn the respect Saban afforded them. To me, that means playing aggressive, smart and opportunistic football — no turnovers, few penalties and mental mistakes and sharp tackling. Basically play the game in a manner in which the Crimson Tide has to beat them rather than just take advantage of Arkansas’ poor play.

Frankly, even Bobby Petrino’s best teams had difficulty doing that against the Crimson Tide, but if the Razorbacks could manage that Saturday, it would be solid step forward.