Tide-Arkansas outcome shapes teams' seasons
By Josh Cooper
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TUSCALOOSA — It has remained in the back of Antoine Caldwell's mind since Sept. 23 last season.
A 24-23 loss at Arkansas on that date was a culmination of a lack of execution on offense, conservative play-calling and falling short by a missed extra point.
That loss provided another bump in the road as the Crimson Tide sputtered to a 6-7 record in a season that saw its coach fired.
"You never really thought about it, but that kind of was the turning point in our season," Caldwell said. "It did seem like we went downhill from that game."
The Crimson Tide (2-0, 1-0 SEC) will try for a little payback on No. 16 Arkansas (1-0, 0-0) when the Razorbacks come to Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday. Kickoff is set for 5:45 p.m., and ESPN will televise the game.
The winner of this game the past two seasons has gone onto a stellar season, while the loser has struggled.
In 2005, Alabama defeated the Razorbacks 24-13, and then finished 10-2 and made the Cotton Bowl. Arkansas was 4-7 that year.
Last season, the Razorbacks finished 10-4, winning the SEC West title in the process.
"It's always been a big win for us. Any time we've beaten Alabama, I think it helps us our season," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. "There's a lot of respect we have versus Alabama. Our players know it's always the first SEC game. There's a big rivalry there between both of us. It has always been good when we're able to get the first one."
The key to stopping Arkansas? It comes down to shutting down two guys, which in theory should be easy, but in reality, is difficult.
Running back Darren McFadden, the 2006 Heisman Trophy runner-up, is the Razorbacks' main guy on offense. But McFadden, a physical runner, isn't the only player Alabama will worry about. Fellow running back Felix Jones finished second to McFadden in Southeastern Conference rushing last season.
Arkansas' defense is physical, too, playing a bump-and-run style against receivers while using a lot of one-on-one coverage patterns.
"Defensively, they're very aggressive," Tide coach Nick Saban said. "They pressure you with five guys."
Most importantly, Alabama realizes Arkansas is a good measuring stick to see where the Tide has progressed up to this point.
So far, every game has been an incremental step up for Alabama.
Western Carolina was for show. Vanderbilt was a little better, but the Commodores haven't beaten Alabama since 1984.
Arkansas is the first real test of the 2007 season.
"This win would be huge," Tide cornerback Simeon Castille said. "It'll give us momentum going into Georgia and Florida State. It really does seem like this game either makes or breaks your season. You don't want to say that, but it seems like it usually does."
No. 16 Arkansas (1-0, 0-0 SEC) at Alabama (2-0, 1-0)
When: Saturday, 5:45 p.m.
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa
Line: Alabama by 3.
TV/radio: ESPN will carry the television broadcast, and AM-1400, AM-730, AM-770, FM-93.3 and FM-92.5 will have radio coverage.
Players to watch: Not often does a kicker appear on this list, but this is a special case. Leigh Tiffin had the worst game of his college career last season at Arkansas, and there is a good chance Saturday’s game could come down to a field goal or extra point. Tiffin has been inconsistent so far this year and when he lines up for a field goal or extra point Saturday, most of Bryant-Denny Stadium will be holding its breath.
Arkansas running back Darren McFadden is one of the most exciting players in the country. Before the season, Sports Illustrated compared him to Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson. He has that rare combination of NFL-ready power and explosiveness.
Key matchup: McFadden versus Rolando McClain: In his first two collegiate appearances, Decatur High grad McClain has knocked off an opposing player’s helmet and knocked a quarterback — Vanderbilt’s Chris Nickson — out of the game. McFadden will be his toughest test. Defensive end Wallace Gilberry calls McClain a “manchild.” McFadden will show just how grown up McClain truly is.
Weather: Sunny and 78 degrees at kickoff.
Last meeting: Arkansas 24, Alabama 23 on Sept. 23, 2006.
Prediction: Alabama 21, Arkansas 20.
Josh Cooper, Daily Sports Writer
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