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October 12, 2015

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) Alabama's defense has brawny run-stoppers, swift pass rushers and a secondary that lately has been producing more big plays and surrendering fewer.

The 10th-ranked Crimson Tide brings the swagger, too.

Defensive backs Cyrus Jones and Eddie Jackson proclaimed the Tide defense as the nation's best after a dominating performance against Arkansas. Jackson went so far as to say they're ''hands down'' No. 1.

Jackson & Co. get a chance to try to build more supporting evidence for that proclamation Saturday against quarterback Kyle Allen and No. 9 Texas A&M's prolific offense. Tide linebacker Reggie Ragland doesn't mind his teammates' boasts - as long as the team keeps backing it up.

''Confidence is the key to being a great defense,'' Ragland said on Monday. ''You've got to have confidence and Eddie's confident in our defense. But we've got to keep getting better each week. That's the thing for us to be that type of defense. But you've also got to be confident.

''I feel like if we're confident we've got a good chance of winning.''

Alabama has convincingly passed the tests against the running offenses of Arkansas and Georgia the past two weeks, holding the Razorbacks' Alex Collins to 26 yards.

Now, they face a different challenge with wide receiver Christian Kirk and Allen, who has recorded back to back 300-yard passing games. Allen played some in relief of Kenny Hill in last season's 59-0 Alabama win that followed two straight down-to-the-wire showdowns.

The front seven led by Ragland and defensive linemen Jarran Reed and A'Shawn Robinson was never a question mark. Those sometimes maligned defensive backs are now brimming with confidence after Alabama has racked up six interceptions in a three-game span for the first time since early in the 2012 season.

The biggest plays produced by Georgia and Arkansas came when the games were already in hand. The Razorbacks' first touchdown drive covered 12 yards after an Alabama turnover and penalty.

''I think the group has played with a little more consistency this year,'' Alabama coach Nick Saban said of the secondary. ''I think that has helped us not give up big plays. We've played smarter, we've made less mental errors, we've communicated better. We've put ourselves in position to make plays and guys have been able to make them when they get the opportunity.

''Hopefully the challenge that we have this week, we'll be able to step up and do a nice job against the best passing team I think we've played to this point.''

Alabama has held opposing offenses to three-and-outs on 29 drives the past three games since losing to Mississippi.

The Tide ranks fourth nationally against the run and sixth in total yards allowed.

Alabama doesn't have a dominant pass rusher like Texas A&M's Myles Garrett but has had nine players record sacks and some pass rush specialist along with all the 300-pounders. Reserves Da'Shawn Hand, Tim Williams and Rashaan Evans each have multiple sacks.

Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart emphasized during the offseason the need to get better at third-down stops, cutting down on explosive plays and forcing more turnovers. So far, the Tide is 3-for-3.

''We haven't given up as many big plays, and this is a big-play offense that we're playing, so it will be imperative we do a good job,'' Saban said.

Opponents are converting just 27 percent on third down and Alabama has eight interceptions, only three shy of last season's total in 14 games.

''We worked on it all summer, all offseason, focusing on the ball and getting turnovers and getting off the field on third down,'' Reed said. ''It's really showing off now during the season. We've got to come out here and do that each and every week.''

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Follow John Zenor on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jzenor

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AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org.

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