Football preview: Alabama eyes history at Arkansas, Auburn takes on Mississippi State, UAB looks to return vs. Rice


Alabama’s 55-17 victory over LSU last Saturday night assured the Crimson Tide a berth in the SEC Championship Game opposite East Division champion Florida in Atlanta on Dec. 19.

But don’t let Nick Saban catch you peeking beyond this Saturday’s 11 a.m. contest at Arkansas and televised on ESPN. Despite Alabama being 9-0 and No. 1 in the College Football Playoff ranking, the coach said it’s important that his Crimson Tide handle the task that’s immediately ahead.

Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith makes a catch against LSU in the Tide’s ninth straight victory this year. Alabama will shoot for an undefeated regular season this week in a road game at Arkansas. (Kent Gidley/Alabama Athletics)

“This is our next game. This is what we need to be focused on,” Saban said. “We need to respect their team. The other team’s capable of beating anybody. That’s been demonstrated all year long.”

The coach noted that the Razorbacks (3-6) lost three games by a combined seven points, so they could easily have six wins. On another note, Saban said his squad can glean motivation from the chance to make history.

“We only had one team around here that went undefeated,” he said of his 2009 squad. “That wasn’t as difficult for that team to go undefeated as it is for this team, playing 10 SEC games.”

By contrast, the 2009 squad played eight conference games and four games outside the league.

“I think any time you play on the road in the SEC, you’ve got to be ready to play and you’ve got to respect the fact that the team that you’re playing certainly is capable of beating you if you don’t execute,” he said. “When we execute, good things happen. When we don’t, we allow the other team opportunities on both sides of the ball.”

Auburn had its chances last week but ultimately fell 31-20 at home to No. 5 Texas A&M. As the Tigers (5-4) head to Starkville to face Mississippi State (2-6) at 6:30 p.m. Saturday on the SEC Network, coach Gus Malzahn again finds himself on the hot seat of fans who are not content with a near .500 season.

Auburn’s Tank Bigsby runs the ball for a big gain during last week’s game against Texas A&M at Jordan Hare Stadium. A winning season is on the line this week when Auburn travels to Mississippi State. (Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics)

“They expect to win championships, and I do, too,” Malzahn told media this week. “In the years that you’re not in the mix, that’s just part of it. But I’m blessed to be here and I’m excited not just about this game, but I’m excited about next year.”

To avoid a break-even season, Auburn will have to contain the Bulldogs’ air raid offense.

“Of course, it’s pretty unique compared to the teams we’ve seen this year,” Malzahn said. “It’s a very unique kind of different approach, throwing to open up the run. They present challenges.”

Malzahn hopes his team’s focus on Mississippi State earlier this season, when the Tigers were initially scheduled to play the Bulldogs, will make a difference. “Hopefully there’ll be good recall from that week,” the coach said.

You’ll have to forgive UAB coach Bill Clark if he feels like he’s been cast in a remake of the Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day.” In this version, Clark has to tell his team, again and again and again, that the game the Blazers were supposed to play has been called off because of COVID-19.

“This last one was one of the toughest things I have had to do with a team,” Clark said. “I had just said on Monday (before the scheduled Middle Tennessee game), ‘Hey, I know that we have canceled these games, but we have to believe. You have to believe this game is going to be played.’

The UAB Blazers are eager to get back on the field after a 42-day break. COVID-19 infections led to a series of canceled games since October. (UAB Athletics)

“That is what you are asking these kids to do: believe,” he continued. “It is really just heart-wrenching. I told them yesterday that I know they have had this taken away from you for four straight weeks. I said, ‘Once again, I am asking you to believe that we are going to play this game.’”

When the Blazers (4-3) take the field this Saturday, it will have been 42 days since they last played a game, dating back to Halloween night at Louisiana Tech.

This week, however, there’s no margin for another COVID-19 cancellation. UAB must play – and beat – Rice (2-2) at noon Saturday in Houston if it is to win a third straight Conference USA West Division title and a berth in its third conference title game in as many years. Last week, the Owls blanked then-No. 15 Marshall 20-0.

As if the task wasn’t tough enough, UAB goes to battle with about 20 players unavailable because of positive coronavirus tests or contact tracing. And wide receiver Austin Watkins Jr. has opted out for the rest of his redshirt senior season to prepare for the NFL Draft.

“Our numbers are down, there is no doubt about this,” Clark said. “The greatest stories come from the greatest adversity. That is what happened when our program was taken away from us and came back. I told our players this is going to be a story they tell their grandkids, no matter what happens.

“It has been tough,” he said. “I am proud of our guys and their resiliency and willingness to play in this game.”

No. 13 Coastal Carolina at Troy: The Trojans evened their record at 5-5 with a 29-0 win over South Alabama in the Battle for the Belt. At 2 p.m. Saturday, they face the talk of college football after the Chanticleers (10-0) knocked off No. 18 Brigham Young 22-17. “This week is a great opportunity to play one of the best teams in the country at home,” coach Chip Lindsey said. “Jamey Chadwell does a great job, and in Year Three you can really see the difference. They’ve gone from winning three games his first year to being undefeated this year.”


The 34th annual Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Classic is at noon Saturday at Montgomery’s Cramton Bowl. The AHSAA TV Network will televise the game over its network of cable affiliates in Alabama and the NFHS Network will livestream the game over its subscriber-based platform.

Sam Shade, coach of Class 6A champion Pinson Valley, will be the Alabama Honorary Captain of the game. Shade played in the 1990 Alabama-Mississippi Classic. The Wenonah High School standout was named a Bryant-Jordan Scholar Athlete award winner following his senior year.

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