Alabama ran its record to 4-0 Saturday with a 24-13 win over Arkansas in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama, now 2-0 in Southeastern Conference games, will host Florida at 2:30 p.m. CDT Saturday in an SEC game to be nationally telecast by CBS.
To read reports out of Florida, one gets the idea that the only more innovative offensive coach than Steve Spurrier, formerly of Florida and now at South Carolina, is the Gators' new head coach, Urban Meyer. Florida is the odds-on favorite to win the SEC Eastern Division after defeating Tennessee two Saturdays ago. The Gators are coming off a rout of Kentucky.
Alabama is leading the SEC Western Division, but most consider Bama's tough work to be just beginning (although before the Tide thrashed South Carolina two weeks ago, the Gamecocks were listed as that first tough game).
Undoubtedly, the pressure will be on Alabama's defense against the Gators. Shula can only hope that his linebacker corps will perform as well Saturday as it did against Arkansas.
Strongside linebacker DeMeco Ryans was in on 15 tackles (6 solo, 9 assists) and had two tackles for losses of nine yards and a fumble recovery. Weakside linebacker Juwan Simpson was in on four tackles (2 solo, 2 assists) and had a key fourth quarter interception that led to Bama's clinching touchdown. Middle linebacker Freddie Roach was in on 11 tackles (5 solo, 6 assists and was credited with three pass break-ups (although all should probably have been interceptions).
Shula said, "The linebackers played as good a game as they have played collectively. They all have good speed. DeMeco particularly has such good ball awareness. All of them have motors that run hard. Usually when a linebacker gets to the football fast, good things happen. Hopefully it will continue to happen."
Shula didn't fret too much about Roach's drops, which drew the kind of good-natured ribbing that is possible after a win. Shula admitted he had to "chuckle on a couple of them." The coach pointed out that Roach gets practice on catching balls, but said "You don't want to spend the week with Freddie practicing catching the ball. He's got a lot to work on. He's also had a bad elbow, and that may have had an effect. But being in the right position is important. But big plays can change the outcome of a game."
Following the Arkansas game, Ryans said that playing against a passing team is okay, but he prefers to stick his nose in a pile of 300-pound linemen and come out with the ball-carrier on the ground. He noted that the Razorbacks "run the ball a lot. You just have to bow your neck and run around and have fun."
Ryans has made some tackles against Arkansas. In three games he has been in on 15 this year, 10 in Fayetteville a year ago, and a school record 25 in Tuscaloosa in 2003.
"They are powerful, big and have a good running game," Shula said after the game. As for the play of Ryans, Shula said, "He has done it every week, but more so today that I've ever seen him – making big hits, you could hear the crowd responding."
Ryans had compliments for the Razorbacks. "That's the best offensive line we have seen so far," he said. "They have big strong players. They were bringing it to us and we were bringing it back to them. It was a 15-round boxing match and we won.
Shula wanted to make sure everyone understood that Arkansas has a good team. After the Razorbacks lost a home game to Vanderbilt, then were humiliated by number one-ranked Southern Cal the week before the Bama game, Shula thought some may have underestimated the Hogs. He gave assurances that Alabama coaches and players expected Arkansas to be good.
"We didn't play as well as we could, but Arkansas was a good team," Shula said in his regular weekly teleconference with sportswriters. "We came up with some big plays and some big drives to get the ball in the end zone. It was good to win.
"Now we need to get ready for this week."
Although Shula said he did not know Meyer until the SEC spring meeting, Bama's coach said he had seen the Meyer offense "a little last year; and, of course, this week."
Shula said that while Alabama may have had some problems in the passing game–dropped passes and throws off the mark–that Shula had also seen some good catches. "Sometimes you're going to have drops and sometimes you're not going to throw it accurately," the coach said. "And you work on that in practice. Our guys have responded well after negative things. They don't dwell on them."
Shula said the receivers also "struggled a little against the bump-and-run (of Arkansas). We were a little out of sync. We had some good plays, but didn't finish drives sometimes."
He said, "I think we were just a little bit off in our running game."
Shula said, "You've got to give Arkansas credit, too," noting the play of the Razorbacks defensive line and linebackers. "Sometimes we didn't do the job on the offensive line, but we ran the ball better in the second half, and particularly after Juwan's turnover."
Shula said the Tide offense needs "to have more positive things happen on first downs" so that Bama doesn't end up with so many third-and-longs.
Shula said, "We scored 24 points and did some things when we had to. Maybe I haven't given Arkansas enough credit. They've got good coaches and players and pride. Maybe because they got blown out the week before it wasn't recognized, but we knew it.
Shula knows the Florida defense presents problems. "They are big and fast and like to blitz," he said. "The linebackers are big, but they run like defensive backs. They are aggressive, but sound." Alabama has not played Florida since defeating the Gators twice in 1999, when Spurrier was coaching Florida. "We're going to have to spend a little extra time this week," Shula said. "We haven't played them. They do some different things in all three phases (offense, defense, special teams), and they are good at them."
On the injury front, Shula said, "No news is good news. I don't think anyone is questionable. I think everyone is probable."
A question from a media member in Florida was whether Shula would have liked a chance to recruit Chad Jackson, the outstanding Florida receiver from Birmingham. Duh! Shula explained that Jackson, the SEC's best receiver, signed with Florida before Shula was coach at Alabama. He said, "We want good players on our football team and he's a good football player from here in our state."