BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
While the Alabama football program that Arkansas will face Saturday morning at 11 a.m. in Tuscaloosa is the same one that has beaten it 16 times in a row, Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban insists it is a “different” team this season.
While No. 11 Alabama (5-1, 3-0) is not drubbing its foes this season to the extent it has in the past, unranked and struggling Arkansas (2-4, 0-3) will find one that has still shown the ability to finish off wins.
“Yeah, it’s been a very enjoyable, challenging year,” Saban said on Wednesday’s SEC Teleconference. “We’ve got a different kind of team. They’ve shown great resiliency in terms of how they’ve competed in games.
“We continue to have a lot of things that we can correct as coaches to try to help us continue to make progress as a team, and I want the players to look forward in a positive way.
“I kind of use the analogy if you started out bench pressing 200 pounds and your goal was to bench press 300 and you get to 250, you’ve made improvement, you’ve made progress but you want to still be motivated to try to get to your goal and continue to improve and make positive progress.”
Alabama’s lone loss this season was a 34-24 home one to Texas on Sept. 9 while it has wins over Middle Tennessee (54-7), at South Florida (17-3), Ole Miss (24-10), at Mississippi State (40-17) and at Texas A&M (26-20).
“Well what I want players to do is really enjoy wins,” Saban said. “ If you beat another team, especially in our league because they’re all tough, you should enjoy that, you should feel good about that. You shouldn’t be relieved that you won the game, whether it’s expectations of whoever creates it or whatever.
“Because I don’t think relief syndrome is a good emotional state to be in. You want to feel like you beat teams, you should be happy about it, you should be mature about things you need to correct, and positive about how you can improve your performance. And just kind of have the right psychological disposition to make progress and move forward.”
SEC Western Division-leading Alabama will be hosting Arkansas for Homecoming, which seems metaphorically appropriate seeing as how the Razorbacks are riding a four-game losing streak.
Still Saban spoke of being wary of Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson (6-3, 245) and the Razorbacks despite them having lost to BYU (38-31), at LSU (23-20) Texas A&M (34-22) and at Ole Miss (27-20) during the current skid.
“We’re looking forward to being back at home at Bryant-Denny Stadium,” Saban said of his team that has not played in its home stadium since Sep. 23 . “It’s homecoming. Arkansas is a huge challenge for us. Really tough team. They’ve had some tough losses.
“KJ Jefferson is a really, really good player and a very challenging matchup as a passer and as a runner.
“They’re very aggressive on defense. They’ve played really well so far this year. We’ve got to look forward to the things that we need to do to improve on and get better and try to build on the confidence that our team plays with.”
Alabama has won all 26 games with 11 a.m. kickoffs it has played since Saban became its head coach since 2007 and has not lost a homecoming game since 2001, when it lost to an LSU team coached by Saban.
It is also the first Alabama home game at 11 a.m. since 2016 when the Crimson Tide hammered Mississippi State 51-3.
“Well I don’t think that any of those games are going to matter in this game, number one,” Saban said. “But I think what we try to emphasize with our players is that when your feet hit the ground in the morning it’s going to be early and you’ve got to be ready to go.
“It happens quick. Pregame meal is early and you’ve got to be ready to go. But you know it also has a little bit with who you’re playing and I think we’re playing a really good team this week, so it’s going to be a real challenge for us.”
Arkansas first-year offensive coordiantor Dan Enos was a freshman quarterback at Michigan State in 1987 when Saban was the defensive coordinator and went on to be the Spartans’ starting quarterback as a junior and senior.
Enos, whose offense is averaging 332.8 yards total offense per game compared to last season’s 474.1 an opting last season, was also assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach under Saban at Alabama in 2018.
“He’s doing great,” Saban said. “I think he’s a really good coach. He did a great job for us when he was here. I can’t remember those days back when he was a scout team quarterback, but if he says I got on him, that wouldn’t surprise me. But anyways, he’s a really good coach and doing a really good job with their team.”
Saban was asked if Enos has changed since he was an assistant at Alabama.
“I think he’s changed quite a bit from when he was a coordinator before he was on our staff, and I think dealing with Mike Locksley, who was the coordinator here when Dan was here and then having coached for Mike, I think he has changed quite a bit, but in a very good way.
“I think they play well. They take advantage of the players that they have and present a lot of issues and problems for you defensively.”
The game will feature Jefferson and Alabama signal caller Jalen Milroe (6-2, 220), someone Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman compared to his own quarterback.
“Well, I don’t like to compare players,” Saban said. “KJ is a really good player in his own right. He’s got a lot of experience and he’s gotten better and better every year.
“Jalen has matured a lot as a quarterback, as a player, as a passer, his confidence in making reads and getting the ball out on time. They’re both outstanding athletes, so they can make plays with their feet and they can scramble and make plays and keep their eyes downfield as passers. That part of it is pretty obvious, I think.
“Jalen has come a long ways from where he started with no experience to the kind of player he’s become in terms of understanding the offense and being able to read and diagnose things more quickly and distribute the ball more like a point guard and not think that he’s got to make every play and understand that his role is to distribute the ball to the right guys in the right time at the right place and he’s gotten a lot better at that.”
Saban gave updates on a trio of injured players in defensive back Malachi Moore (ankle), punter James Burnip (pulled muscle) and wide receiver Ja’Corey Brooks, who was limited to special teams last week.
“Ja’Corey’s been able to practice, Saban said. “Malachi and James will both be game-time decisions, depending on the progress they make between now and then. We’re preparing as if neither guy would be able to play, but I can’t say that emphatically.”
Saban sees an Arkansas defense that is more aggressive under new coodinators Travis Williams and Marcus Woodson this season than it has been in recent years.
The Razorbacks are limiting their foes to 340.7 yards total offense per game this season, over 124 yards less than the 465.2 given up a contest during 2022.
“They’re very aggressive,” Saban said. “Playing a lot of pressure type defenses. Their players are good up front. They’re big, physical. They strike you up front and control the line of scrimmage. They’re playing really, really well, I think.”
Arkansas, which has rushed 67 times for just 78 yards the past two games, has not even been half the running team this season (111.5 yards per game) that it was last season (236.5 yards a contest).
That includes negative yardage from sacks, of which the Razorbacks have had 23 this season, next to last in the 14-team SEC to Alabama’s surprising 26 – which is 130th overall out of 133 teams.
“You know, they’ve been able to run the ball effectively,” Saban said. “I don’t see them, they’re a team that’s committed to running the ball. They run it. They’ve got good play-action passes. They’ve got RPOs (run-pass options) that go with it that they’ve made plays with. The quarterback run game is really challenging. They’re doing a lot of good things on offense.
“…I still think they’re a good running football team. Never really looked at the statistics from last year to this year or any individual, but I do think that they’re very capable running the ball effectively based on their scheme and how they tie it together with play-action passes and RPOs.”