Alabama starts brutal stretch with visit to No. 16 Arkansas
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) Alabama breezed through most of its early schedule with lopsided wins and one big comeback.
Now, the top-ranked Crimson Tide enters the meat of its schedule with three straight games against Top 20 teams, two of them on the road. The stretch begins Saturday at No. 16 Arkansas, with the Tide then going to No. 9 Tennessee before a home game with No. 8 Texas A&M.
''The next three weeks will be a grinder,'' center Bradley Bozeman said Monday.
A grinder, indeed. Alabama (5-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) has been tested only once this season, though it's taken a quarter or so to get going in several games.
That lone challenge, incidentally, came in the only SEC road game so far. That's when Alabama overcame a 24-3 deficit and a late charge to edge No. 14 Mississippi snare a 48-43 and end a two-year losing streak to the Rebels. Three of the next four are road games, closing with a trip to LSU.
`Bama stampeded its only other ranked opponent, then-No. 20 Southern California, 52-6 in the opener at Arlington, Texas. Besides Ole Miss, the Tide has won the other four games by an average of 37.5 points and leads the SEC in scoring offense while ranking second in scoring defense. With seven touchdowns, Alabama's special teams and defense have actually outscored three of the first five opponents.
That came against teams like Kent State and Western Kentucky, though. The offense figures to improve along the way with three key freshmen - quarterback Jalen Hurts, tailback Joshua Jacobs and right tackle Jonah Williams - banking some experience. Jacobs started in place of an injured Damien Harris (ankle) against Kentucky and rushed for 100 yards.
Williams has started every game and Hurts has so clearly solidified the starting job that opening-game starter Blake Barnett left the team and withdrew from school last week.
Now comes the toughest part of the schedule, though. After these four games, Alabama faces struggling SEC West opponents Mississippi State and Auburn and FCS team Chattanooga.
It really is nothing new since the Tide has faced 53 Top 25 teams since the start of the 2008 season and beaten 41 of them, a .773 winning percentage.
''Pretty much every year we have a long SEC stretch, so I'm pretty used to it now,'' defensive end Dalvin Tomlinson said.
Tide players are also accustomed to tuning out the hype and adhering to Tide coach Nick Saban's message about staying grounded and not being satisfied with your performance.
There is room for improvement.
The passing game wasn't clicking in the first half against Kentucky. Botched execution also led to a fumble when tailback Bo Scarbrough bumped the arm of quarterback Jalen Hurts.
''I think our team is making progress, but I think we need to continue to do that and continue to work because every week in the SEC you've got a real challenge and a real test and that certainly won't be any different playing on the road this weekend against Arkansas,'' Saban said.
NOTE: Wide receiver ArDarius Stewart is returning to practice after missing the past two games with a knee injury sustained against Mississippi. ''We're hopeful that he'll be able to get through the week and make the kind of progress he needs to be able to contribute in this game,'' Saban said.