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Originally published Thursday, September 13, 2012 at 8:00 PM

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Arkansas-Alabama matchup has lost luster | This weekend's best bets in college football

Arkansas had high hopes this season, before a stunning loss to Louisiana-Monroe. Now the Razorbacks are three-touchdown underdogs on Saturday to top-ranked Alabama.

Seattle Times colleges reporter

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Not so long ago, Saturday's Alabama football game in Fayetteville, Ark., was going to be a hog-calling hootenanny, a launch to what the fans in Bill Clinton's old stomping grounds thought to be a run at a national championship.

Then Bobby Petrino got ahead of his skis and went over his handlebars.

Then John L. Smith came on from his tenure at Weber State — about four months worth, hardly enough to order cable service — to rescue the program.

Then Louisiana-Monroe came to town and beat the Razorbacks last week. And beat them up.

And now, here's top-ranked 'Bama, a three-touchdown favorite to quell the Hogs (12:30 p.m. PDT) and sustain another march toward a BCS trophy that was once in the cross hairs of Arkansas.

In late summer, this is what's known as a hard fall. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported Thursday that tickets going for as high as $2,200 on StubHub in July now carry a maximum price-tag of $290.

"Everybody has a tendency to drop their chin to the ground and carry it through the week," Smith said at midweek on the SEC coaches conference call, stressing that he and his staff had to pull his guys out of that lethargy.

Smith said the Razorbacks were in the middle of a demanding week of practice.

"We have to fight through this," said Dennis Erickson's old defensive lieutenant. "You (his players) have done this in the past. This is nothing more than the grind we put you through in the summertime, in the spring and last winter.

"We're going to make it hard on the guys out there, we're going to practice hard, and if you're not totally in the boat, then get the heck out."

'Bama has built the kind of profile that would cause opponents to mull that. The Tide is 19-0 in September since 2008. In 18 of its past 19 games, it has allowed no more than seven points in first halves.

Complicating Arkansas' challenge is the uncertain health of standout quarterback Tyler Wilson, who hasn't practiced all week after a head injury. If he can't go, those chins Smith talked about are liable to drop to subterranean level.

Chronologically, the rest of Saturday's best:

California at Ohio State (AP No. 12), 9 a.m. — If you happened to see the brief but testy sideline exchange between Cal coach Jeff Tedford and quarterback Zach Maynard during the Southern Utah game, you have reason for pause on the Bears.

Garfield High product DeAndre Coleman has 14.5 tackles for the Bears and Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson combined for 289 yards last week. But Cal must deal with Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller, who leads the Big Ten in rushing (302 yards) and carried 27 times last week against Central Florida.

Florida (18) at Tennessee (23), 3 p.m. — The Vols are one of the year's intriguing programs, because — true story — coach Derek Dooley lost seven assistants in the offseason, including Justin Wilcox and Peter Sirmon to Washington and Eric Russell to WSU.

"It's certainly not an ideal situation," Dooley said on the SEC call. As for the perception that the Vols had been a sinking ship, he said, "The guys I hired didn't hesitate. They had a good understanding of what we were about and where we were headed."

Lots of SEC programs will test that resolve, including the Gators, who — I double-checked — will be half of ESPN's GameDay show for a record 34th time.

Arizona State at Missouri, 4 p.m. — It's been all seashells and balloons so far for ASU under Todd Graham, and the Sun Devils even appear to catch a break with the schedule, catching Mizzou between the mega-hyped SEC opener with Georgia and a game next week at South Carolina.

Tigers coach Gary Pinkel is candid about that challenge, and cops to a possible lapse in preaching even-keel last week before the Georgia loss.

"I think I could have helped some of our younger players, in terms of talking about it, educating them about it, not getting too hyped up," Pinkel says.

Mizzou's offensive line is beat up but the Tigers have a gem at quarterback in James Franklin, who almost led an upset in overtime last year in Tempe before ASU prevailed.

USC (2) at Stanford (21), 4:30 p.m. — "It's just another game," Matt Barkley told reporters. "We're going up north for an away game. Nothing special about it."

Yeah, and Meryl Streep is just another actress.

Barkley, a senior, has never beaten Stanford, and this is very likely one of the reasons he's back for a fourth year.

USC has never lost four straight to Stanford. The chance of it happening seems to rest squarely on the shoulders of Cardinal quarterback Josh Nunes, who makes his third career start.

Notre Dame (20) at Michigan State (10), 5 p.m. — Nine of the past 12 meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less, and the Irish have dropped 12 of their past 15 road openers.

The Spartans have a tendency to jump aboard their backs and ride. They did it a few years ago with Javon Ringer, and now Le'Veon Bell has 62 carries in two games.

Brigham Young (25) at Utah, 7 p.m. — Last year, a close game at half evolved into a 54-10 Utah rout, propelled by seven BYU turnovers and a 40-point Utes second half. If that's not juice enough for the blue Cougars, then Utes back John White added more this week, telling The Salt Lake Tribune, "I'm ready to go pound BYU and get these Cougars out of town."

Most prominent subplot is the Utah quarterback, who will be either veteran Jon Hays or freshman Travis Wilson, after Jordan Wynn retired from football with chronic shoulder problems early this week. And on the other side, when BYU starts a senior quarterback, it has won 10 of the past 11 from Utah. Riley Nelson is a senior.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com


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