Tagovailoa in spotlight as No. 1 Alabama heads to Arkansas

Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (13) runs the ball against the Mississippi Rebels.Photo Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Sports Xchange

The University of Alabama sports information department did something very shrewd this week to make sure that reporters didn’t ask too many questions about the No. 1 Crimson Tide being a huge favorite on the road Saturday and not having to face a ranked opponent this month.

It made quarterback Tua Tagovailoa available to reporters for the first time during the regular season.

The sophomore sensation spent 20 minutes talking about everything but the Razorbacks, including on not having attempted a fourth-quarter pass this season. With such big leads, coach Nick Saban hasn’t had to use Tagovailoa past the third quarter, able to turn to erstwhile starter Jalen Hurts.

“Coach Saban makes the best choice, and that’s Coach Saban’s decision,” Tagovailoa said.

“With all of his decisions he knows what’s best for the team. So whether I play in the first quarter in this game, or whether I play in the third quarter, or not, Coach knows what’s best for our team and what our teams needs to be successful in games.

“Whenever my number is called I’m going to be ready.”

Arkansas may want to hope he misses the team plane to Fayetteville because Tagovailoa is the early frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy. His passer rating leads the nation, Alabama is No. 1 in scoring offense and the Crimson Tide is almost averaging a point scored for every snap he takes.

Alabama’s 37 touchdowns are the most by any team in SEC history through five games, topping even Steve Spurrier’s high-profile teams in the mid-1990s.

“He’s a great guy,” sophomore wide receiver Henry Ruggs III said of Tagovailoa. “He doesn’t really complain about anything. He goes out and does his work. We’re behind him and he tries to make us better.”

Although Arkansas’ defense showed some improvement last week against Texas A&M, the Razorbacks rank 10th in the SEC in total defense, 11th in pass defense and 13th in scoring defense.

Arkansas (1-4, 0-2 SEC) was able to mount a comeback after being down 17-0 to the Aggies, but still lost 24-17.

While Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher was extremely critical of his team afterward — “I don’t know if it was a step backward. We just didn’t play very well” — Arkansas was ready to claim a moral victory.

“This is a better football team than we’ve been all year,” coach Chad Morris said.

He was right. The last time Arkansas played at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium was a disaster for the home team, which lost 44-17 to North Texas.

However, the Texas A&M game was also a bit misleading as Arkansas managed only 248 total yards of offense and had seven three-and-outs, including all four in the first quarter it had had minus-3 total yards.

The Aggies ended up with a time of possession advantage of 36:56 to 23:04.

That’s a statistic that’s largely irrelevant to Alabama (5-0, 2-0 SEC). Coming off an almost perfect first half while taking a 49-0 lead against Louisiana-Lafayette last week, it leads the nation in scoring drives lasting less than a minute with 12. Five took less than 30 seconds.

Trying to stop, or at least slow, the Crimson Tide will be longtime SEC defensive coordinator John Chavis. Saban knows him well from his time at Tennessee, LSU and Texas A&M. His teams are known for press coverage and creating turnovers.

Arkansas has already forced 10, which ranks third in the SEC and 13th nationally. The Razorbacks have seven fumble recoveries, compared to just one for the Crimson Tide.

Last week, linebackers De’Jon Harris and Dre Greenlaw combined to tally 29 tackles, two interceptions and one sack. Harris had 16 stops, the most of any SEC player this season, and is 17th nationally with 53.

“Unbelievable,” Morris said of their performance.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of two guys that were that productive in one game, very much just all over the field and very impactful. … I know they’re hurting. But, boy, they emptied their tank. And that’s what you ask.”

Nevertheless, this will be the sixth time that Arkansas has faced Alabama when the Crimson Tide was ranked No. 1 under Saban. Only once was the final score close, 24-20 in 2010. The other scores were 52-0 in both 2012 and 2013, 49-30 in 2016 and last year’s 41-9.

On the bright side for Arkansas this is the first of five consecutive home games, four on campus and one in Little Rock.