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September 15, 2012

HURT: The big opponent Tide has to worry about is itself

Tyler Wilson doesn't play defense. He doesn't snap on punts, or block for himself. So it is debatable, at best, as to whether Arkansas would have had any chance at all with Wilson playing quarterback against Alabama on Saturday.

He would have helped, certainly, had he been able to hang in for four quarters. Big-time quarterbacks can make a huge difference for teams that otherwise would struggle to stand a chance in the Southeastern Conference. See Eli Manning at Ole Miss, for instance. But 52 points is a lot of difference to make.

There was one thing, however, that stood no chance at all in this game - gamesmanship.

All week long, Arkansas played coy about Wilson's status, but in the end it seemed to have only one effect. It sent a message to both of the available Arkansas quarterbacks, Brandon Allen and Brandon Mitchell, that neither one would scare Alabama nearly as much as a feeble hint that Wilson might play. On Alabama, it had no effect at all.

"We told our players that their quarterback situation was not our problem, it was theirs," Saban said. "We prepared for all of it. We looked at all the plays Tyler had, and we looked at all the plays No. 17 (Mitchell) had. So our players understood the concept of what they were trying to do, whichever quarterback was in there."

One last word as the Arkansas season seems to have crashed into the Ozarks somewhere - there is a disquieting resemblance to Alabama's 2000 season, when a highly rated team turned sour in September. Players stopped playing hard for a coach that, it quickly became apparent, would not be returning. The risk of that scenario playing out for Arkansas seems high. As Saban noted, that is not Alabama's concern.

At the other 21 positions on the field, it seemed, Alabama had a clear advantage. It was apparent on the offensive line and downright glaring on the defense, where Arkansas did not recruit well under Bobby Petrino. The defenders who were wrapping up the shutout in the fourth quarter for Alabama looked far more athletic than the ones who started the game for Arkansas. But being athletic does not make Alabama invulnerable.

"This is a young team," Saban said.

And it is a young team that has already shown that it can be distracted by shiny things like the cover of Sports Illustrated and the No. 1 ranking, if the intensity level against Western Kentucky was any measure.

It is tempting, already, to look at Alabama's schedule and say that only one dangerous team remains: LSU. But there is another team that can beat Alabama, one that poses even more of a threat: Alabama itself. The measuring stick for the next couple of weeks, at least, will be whether the lessons of the post-Michigan days will carry over against Florida Atlantic and Ole Miss, games in which Alabama will be prohibitively favored. If Alabama needed to see what can happen when you don't handle adversity, it had to look no further than the other sideline.

Yes, Arkansas had a bad injury situation, but no team is immune to that, the Crimson Tide included. Yes, Arkansas was probably overrated in the early polls, based primarily on Wilson, but the team last seen flattened on Highway 71 in Arkansas was very recently in the top 10. That shows just how fast things can slip away, how soon your head coach can go from demanding excellence to asking that no one jump ship.

"What we have to do is not point any fingers," John L. Smith said.

On the other hand, Saban does little else - not laying blame on players, but demanding that they hold themselves to a standard that - and this speaks volumes - was not met in a 52-0 win.

It has been all too easy to make a punchline out of Arkansas, with the Bobby Petrino debacle and the outright goofiness that Smith seems to convert to at times. (It works for Les Miles because he has far better players.) But Alabama shouldn't laugh too hard, not because the scoreboard wouldn't give it license to laugh, but because, as Saban says, it isn't about the scoreboard. It's about the standard.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.



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