Banged-up Arkansas looks to bounce back
Fayetteville, Ark. - Chris Gragg has experienced a steady climb of success during his time at Arkansas, with the team increasing its win total in each of his first four seasons.
The Razorbacks tight end has made a game-winning catch, been a part of the school's first BCS bowl game and a team that finished ranked No. 5 in the country.
The one thing Gragg hasn't been a part of is a victory over Alabama. He'll have his final chance today when the No. 1 Crimson Tide (2-0) visits an Arkansas team reeling with injuries and the mental hangover of a devastating loss to Louisiana-Monroe a week ago.
Quarterback Tyler Wilson's availability is uncertain for the Razorbacks (1-1) following a head injury in the first half of last week's loss. He didn't practice Thursday, and Arkansas coach John L. Smith said Friday that last season's first-team All-Southeastern Conference quarterback would be a game-time decision.
Whether or not Wilson plays, or if either redshirt freshman Brandon Allen or junior Brandon Mitchell takes the field at quarterback, Gragg has his mind set on turning the upset tables around on Alabama - however unlikely that might seem at this point.
"They're one of the teams I've never had a win against," Gragg said. "That's one thing that has been in the back of my mind. They've won two national championships since I've been here, too. They've been to places we want to go, and we know we have to beat them to get to those places."
The defending national champions have defeated the Razorbacks five straight times, including in each of the last four seasons while Arkansas was coached by Bobby Petrino. Petrino is no longer around after his April firing, but the bulk of his players returned this year from last season's 11-2 team that won the Cotton Bowl, and expectations were high for the Razorbacks.
That is, until the shocking overtime loss to Louisiana-Monroe, one that showed Arkansas' weaknesses on the offensive line, in the running game and in the defensive secondary - as well as how dependent the team is on Wilson's leadership. The Razorbacks led 28-7 midway through the third quarter before falling in overtime, allowing 550 yards of total offense to the Warhawks.
Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban is well aware of what Louisiana-Monroe can do, having lost to the Warhawks during his first season at Alabama in 2007. He's also wary of an Arkansas team that hasn't changed significantly from the team that was ranked No. 8 a week ago.
"Whoever plays, we're going to have to do a good job of executing and do our job," Saban said. "It really doesn't matter what happened last week. I'm sure we're going to get their best game."
The Razorbacks almost gave the Crimson Tide their best game in Fayetteville two years ago, leading 20-7 late in the third quarter before then-No. 1 Alabama rallied for a 24-20 win. Senior linebacker Nico Johnson had eight tackles in that win, and he hasn't forgotten the close call then, or how the Crimson Tide struggled at times - by their standards - in a 35-0 win over Western Kentucky last week.
Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, who threw four touchdowns in the win, was sacked six times last week, providing Saban plenty to critique this week.
"(Fayetteville) is pretty much like a rivalry type of atmosphere," Johnson said. "It's going to be intense because they're coming off the week they're coming off they had, and we're coming off the week we had.
"They're going to be looking to bounce back, and we're going to be looking to move forward and get better. It's going to be exciting."
Exciting is hardly the right word to describe the mood around Arkansas this week. The Alabama game was the most anticipated throughout the offseason for the Razorbacks, who hoped to use a victory as a springboard into the SEC and national championship discussion.
Instead of buildup this week, however, Arkansas has faced endless questions about the mistakes that led to last week's loss. That's included questions about a defense that's last in the SEC in points allowed (29) per game - after facing FCS Jacksonville State and Louisiana-Monroe.
"I don't think we need to really listen to what all the outsiders have to say about it," Arkansas safety Ross Rasner said. "I mean, there are always going to be the naysayers and those that are saying "You can't do this, you can't do that,' but I think it is just more of we know what we can do, we know what we are capable of and we just have to execute the game plan."
Whether the Razorbacks can execute against the Crimson Tide has yet to be seen.
It also has yet to be seen how Smith rebounds after the first crushing defeat of his Arkansas tenure as head coach.
He's done his best this week to look past the disappointment of last week and ahead today, which he said is no higher of a mountain to climb than before. In addition to Wilson's uncertainty, the Razorbacks are without their top two fullbacks (Kiero Small and Kody Walker) for the season, and cornerback Tevin Mitchel is also out against the Crimson Tide with an injury suffered last week.
"We're just going to make the changes that we're going to make," Smith said. "And we're going to go to the field and prepare the very best we can and we're going to get after them."
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