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Arkansas hits road to face Alabama in SEC showdown

by Tom Murphy | November 20, 2021 at 12:05 a.m.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — No team has owned the University of Arkansas like college football titan Alabama.

The defending national champion Crimson Tide (9-1, 5-1 SEC) will take a 14-game winning streak over the Razorbacks (7-3, 3-3) into today’s 2:30 p.m. game at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

No. 2 Alabama is a three-touchdown favorite over the No. 21 Razorbacks to extend that streak to 15 games.

Only Texas, in a 14-game streak that covered non-consecutive years from 1894 to 1932, has beaten Arkansas 14 consecutive times.

Second-year Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman, who was offered a job by Alabama Coach Nick Saban after joining the Bret Bielema regime at Arkansas in the winter of 2012-13, has faced the Crimson Tide seven times while coaching at Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia. Those teams went 0-7 against Alabama.

Pittman was an assistant coach at Northern Illinois in 2003 when the Huskies upset No. 21 Alabama 19-16 at Bryant-Denny behind Michael Turner’s 156 rushing yards.

That was before Saban’s arrival in Tuscaloosa turned a struggling Tide program into perhaps college football’s greatest dynasty.

The Crimson Tide has won 60 of its last 65 games.

“When you turn on the film, they’re what you expect to see,” Pittman said. “You have to go down there and play a really, really good football game and see what happens.”

Alabama held on to beat LSU 20-14 two weeks ago.

“LSU played them close because LSU’s got a lot of talent and they’re playing hard now and physical. And that’s how you beat Alabama,” Pittman said. “Not many people can. You’re going to have to get into a fist fight and see if you can come out ahead.”

Pittman has clearly instilled a belief in players they can beat quality SEC programs. The Razorbacks snapped a 20-game losing streak to conference opponents in his second game as head coach. They are coming off back-to-back three-point wins over Mississippi State and at LSU.

Arkansas receiver Treylon Burks talked about what it will take to snap the streak against Alabama.

“Just by believing in each other and knowing they’re human just like us,” Burks said. “We just have to go out there and believe in each other and just play the game.”

Senior offensive tackle Dalton Wagner has seen four consecutive losses to Alabama by escalating point margins. He said belief in being able to beat Alabama is incredibly important.

“We’ve played ranked teams before on the road,” Wagner said. “This game is now about making sure we believe in ourselves and have the confidence in ourselves to lift us past what normal teams would falter at. It’s lifting past when they go on a run of points or we go on a run of points, staying even and knowing my teammates have got my back.”

Arkansas linebacker Grant Morgan will face the Tide for a sixth time, since he took a redshirt year and a bonus senior year due to COVID-19. The closest the Razorbacks got in that time was a 49-30 shootout loss in 2016 in which Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen passed for 400 yards but threw three interceptions, all by safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who returned one 100 yards for an early fourth quarter touchdown.

“If you believe in something you’re thinking it’s going to happen without seeing it or knowing it’s going to happen,” Morgan said. “We like the word ‘know’ around here. We like to know we’re going to do it.

“We’ve seen what we can do. We’ve seen that we can win games. We beat LSU at LSU. We played a really good Texas A&M team really well at a neutral site. So we know what we can do. We’ve just got to treat this game [the same] and be able to focus on us.”

Saban always pays compliments to the opposing team.

In this case, he recognized Pittman’s work in pulling a program out of ashes in short order.

“I think they play with great intangibles,” Saban said. “They play with great effort. They’ve got great toughness and discipline in terms of how they execute what they do, and their players have all improved.

“A lot of these players played last year on the offensive line are better. … Burks is a really good player. Defensively, they play a great team-together scheme.”

Saban said his film study of Arkansas revealed a team that knows what it’s doing.

“They execute well, they play hard and they’re tough,” he said. “They play the same way on special teams. They’ve got better players, and some of them are better from just being in the program and improving and developing, which is always a sign of a good coach.”

It is no coincidence that Alabama’s winning streak in the series runs concurrently with the arrival of Saban, who is 17-2 against Arkansas while at LSU and Alabama.

The Crimson Tide is not only riding the historic streak that overlaps Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa, they also have a short-term stat that speaks of their dominance in the series.

Alabama has won the last six games against Arkansas by increasing point spreads — from 13 points in 2015 to 19, 32, 34, 41 and 49.

Those last four spreads total 156 points, an average of 44 points per game, that ranks second on the worst four-year losing spreads by the Razorbacks against any opponent. The largest is Auburn’s 157 points in four meetings between 2016-19.

Prior to these modern-day lopsided runs, the four-game record for an Arkansas opponent had been early last century in Texas’ spread of 148 points in games between 1912 and 1919.

For the first time in six years Arkansas will face Alabama when the Crimson Tide is not ranked No. 1. They are No. 2.

Arkansas has a modest little streak of its own at stake. The Razorbacks have achieved their highest spot in the College Football Playoff (CFP) rankings at No. 21 and they have stayed in consecutive polls for the first time since the CFP was instituted in 2014.

Arkansas has played Alabama within one score just three times during the 14-game losing streak, starting with a 41-38 thriller in Tuscaloosa in Houston Nutt’s last year at Arkansas and Saban’s first with the Tide.

In that game, Arkansas fell behind 21-0 then overcame a 31-10 deficit by scoring four consecutive touchdowns, two by Darren McFadden, who ravaged Alabama for 195 rushing yards.

Trailing 38-31 and facing fourth and 6 from the Arkansas 25, Saban wisely chose to send Leigh Tiffin on for a 42-yard field goal with just over four minutes remaining. Tiffin had missed three field goals and an extra point in a 24-23 double-overtime loss at Arkansas the year before, but his kick was true, drawing the Tide within 38-34.

With McFadden sidelined due to a concussion, Arkansas managed one first down before having to punt. John Parker Wilson led a nine-play, 73-yard march that ended on Matt Caddell’s game-winning 4-yard touchdown catch with 8 seconds remaining.

Arkansas scored in two plays to open the 2010 game against No. 1 Alabama and led 20-7 before the Crimson Tide rallied behind Greg McElroy and Mark Ingram. Alabama intercepted Ryan Mallett three times and scored the final 17 points to win 24-20.

The Razorbacks’ 2014 team celebrated the 50th anniversary of its 1964 National Championship team with throwback gear and helmets against No. 7 Alabama. Arkansas limited the Tide to 227 yards but could not get over the hump in a 14-13 loss.

Arkansas led the eventual national champion 2015 Alabama team 7-3 at halftime on Drew Morgan’s 4-yard touchdown catch from Brandon Allen with 1:29 left in the second quarter.

But the Crimson Tide rallied with a pair of Jake Coker touchdown passes to Calvin Ridley and Richard Mullaney and Derrick Henry’s 1-yard touchdown run to win 27-14.

Since then, the Crimson Tide has won in dominating fashion time after time.

Pittman said playing solid football is the first step to upsetting Alabama.

“You can’t turn the ball over, you can’t have special teams blunders,” Pittman said. “You have to stay in the game. We’re going to try to go down there and execute.

“We know it’s going to be a loud crowd. If we can execute, stay on the field, things of that nature, basically the same things they’d be in most any game. You can’t really make it about Alabama as much as we make it about us and the things we have to do, those things being be good with the football, convert third down, get them off the field on third down and be really good in special teams. If we can do that then we’ll be the best team we can be on Saturday.”

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