No. 1 Alabama looks to avoid letdown

The Sports Xchange

September 04, 2018 at 8:56 pm.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — They’re banging the drum at the University of Alabama this week, and we’re talking about the Million Dollar Band playing the song “Africa.”

The focus has been about not overlooking any opponent.

Although Saturday’s game against Arkansas State (1-0) is also the Crimson Tide’s home opener and will on ESPN2 (3:30 p.m. ET), one would think a letdown is unlikely. But this is the kind of game Alabama (1-0) had some problems with in the past, especially when having a young roster like this one.

In 2008, coming off a big win against Clemson in Atlanta, Alabama struggled against Tulane for a 20-6 victory. In 2013, Colorado State and former Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Jim McElwain kept the Crimson Tide to within 31-6, and the game was closer than the score indicated.

But this team has more offensive firepower while Alabama has a completely revamped secondary that is still feeling its way after playing just one game together.

“They won their conference in two of the last three years so we know that they’re a good team,” Crimson Tide junior defensive back Shyheim Carter said of Arkansas State.

This is Alabama’s final tuneup before starting league play and is the kind of opponent that can help the Crimson Tide prepare for Ole Miss and Auburn, as former Rebels coach Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn both coached the Red Wolves before moving on to the Southeastern Conference.

It also helps explain why Alabama is paying Arkansas State $1.7 million to make the trip.

The difference in the programs is reflected in the home attendance. Last week Arkansas State, which is part of the Sun Belt, played in front of 20,184 home fans. It’ll be before 100,000-plus at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

“There’s nothing like going to Tuscaloosa against the No. 1-ranked team in the country,” Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson said on his weekly TV show (he was on the Middle Tennessee coaching staff that visited in 2002 and nearly pull off an upset, 39-34). “They put a pretty good beating on Louisville.

“You live for these opportunities.”

Although Arkansas State plays in a smaller conference, you wouldn’t know it by the offensive line. Left tackle Lanard Bonner (6-foot-5, 315 pounds) heads the group, which includes two guards who are 340 pounds-plus.

Where Alabama’s size advantage figures to come into play the most is in the run game. Red Wolves senior defensive end Ronheen Bingham is listed at 242 pounds and weakside linebacker Caleb Bonner is just 213.

Otherwise, the two names to know on the Arkansas State roster are running back Warren Wand and quarterback Justice Hansen.

Wand is only 5-5, but the senior has already topped 2,000 career rushing yards.

Hansen is the reigning Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Week after a record-setting performance against Southeast Missouri, a 48-21 victory after leading by just seven points at halftime.

The senior was 26 of 36 for 423 yards and six touchdowns to set the Red Wolves’ single-game mark. All six touchdowns went to different receivers and he’s thrown at least one touchdown pass in 18 straight games, dating to his sophomore year.

“(They) obviously have a very good quarterback, a lot of firepower on offense,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “Blake Anderson does a really good job. They play really well on special teams. They’re sound in everything they do.

“It’s going to be one of those fast-paced, speedball games where they’re going to probably go as fast as they can.”

Overall, Arkansas State outgained its FCS opponent 685-285, including a 497-163 edge in passing. The 685 total yards ranked third in program history while the 8.7 yards per play was seventh.

However, the Red Wolves will be without one of their biggest receiving threats as Dahu Green is out for the year after suffering a broken ankle in the season opener. The 6-5 transfer from Oklahoma sat out last season under NCAA transfer rules.

Alabama, coming off a 51-14 victory against Louisville in Orlando, has won 74 straight games against unranked teams — during which every other team in the FBS has had at least 10 losses — and 30 straight at home versus non-conference foes.

With a win, the Crimson Tide will likely be atop the AP Top 25 for the 106th time, breaking the all-time mark set by Ohio State.

Of course, Saban isn’t talking about any of that leading up to the game.

“We look forward to being at home this week,” Saban said. “I know our players love to play in Bryant-Denny Stadium. It’s a great environment for them. I know we’ll have a great crowd and looking forward to the folks really supporting our players in a positive way.

“But the most important thing that we’re focused on here is showing improvement as a team.”