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Arkansas looks to make it the Big Three

There’s a clear Big Two right now in the SEC’s Western Division, and everybody knows who those two are.

LSU is ranked No. 2 this week in the Associated Press poll, and Alabama is ranked No. 3.

The date of their game (Nov. 5) has been circled on everybody in this league’s calendar since last season ended.

If the SEC is indeed going to make it six national championships in a row, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t think it will be either Alabama or LSU hoisting that crystal trophy in New Orleans come January.

But the SEC also has another streak going. Four different teams from the league have won the last four national titles.

Arkansas would love to be the fifth, and the Hogs get their chance on Saturday in Tuscaloosa to prove that the Big Two in the West is really the Big Three.

This is what Bobby Petrino and the Hogs have been building toward ever since he arrived four years ago. They got a taste of it last season with their Allstate Sugar Bowl appearance and won 10 games.

But they judge you in this league by championships, and Saturday’s showdown at Bryant-Denny Stadium would be a perfect stage for the Hogs to prove that they belong in the same elite status as both Alabama and LSU.

Are they ready?

We’re going to find out, but they seem to be more equipped than they have been under Petrino to win a game of this magnitude.

For one, it’s the best defense Arkansas has fielded under Petrino. The Hogs are deep and athletic up front, and it’s also a veteran unit. Defensive end Jake Bequette, linebacker Jerry Franklin, linebacker Jerico Nelson and safety Tramain Thomas have all been playing since they were freshmen and sophomores.

If this is a fourth-quarter game similar to a year ago, the Hogs shouldn't be overwhelmed by the pressure.

“We’ve got a lot of experience on our defense,” Thomas said. “We know we’re more than capable of getting a ‘W’ out there. We’re going to come out there focused and confident and take it from there.”

One of the concerns for the Hogs on defense is Bequette’s health. They’re hopeful he’ll be able to play and will be close to 100 percent, but hamstring injuries can be tricky. Arkansas isn't the same without him, either, with his ability to both rush the passer and play the run.

On offense, the Hogs clearly have enough playmakers to stretch that Alabama offense and give the Crimson Tide their first real test of the season.

Even though Penn State is a tough place to play, the Nittany Lions weren’t good enough offensively to seriously challenge the Crimson Tide. The Hogs are.

They’re also getting receivers Jarius Wright and Greg Childs back for this game. Wright was held out of last week’s 38-28 win over Troy with a knee strain, while Childs missed the game after the death of his grandmother.

“We feel like we have the best receiving corps in the country, so that’s going to help out a lot, having more playmakers on the field,” said Arkansas running back Ronnie Wingo, who’s stepped in for Knile Davis. “It’s just going to make it harder for Alabama to stop the whole offense and look on film and say, ‘What are they going to do here and there with so many weapons?’ ”

Ultimately, what it’s going to come down to for the Hogs is whether they can protect quarterback Tyler Wilson and whether they can run the ball at least a little bit on first and second down to avoid a glut of third-and-long situations.

Alabama’s defense specializes in getting teams in third-and-long.

Petrino has said over and over again that nobody does a better job than Alabama of hitting your quarterback.

Wilson was sacked three times last week against Troy, and the Hogs are playing a true freshman, Mitch Smothers, at one of their offensive tackle spots. The Hogs will need an "A" game from their offensive line and an "A" game from their running game in general.

This year is a little different for Arkansas in that the Hogs had three nonconference games prior to the Alabama game. Petrino said earlier this week that Arkansas used an entire week in the preseason to prepare for Alabama.

The Hogs typically do that for their SEC opener, according to Petrino, but last season that opener was against Georgia. So you can bet that Arkansas’ players have already seen plenty of Alabama tape.

Last season’s loss to the Tide still stings, too, especially the way the Hogs failed to finish the game at home after leading 20-7.

“Pretty much since last season’s game, we’ve been wanting to get back at these guys, and now we have the opportunity,” Thomas said. “We have to seize the opportunity.”

It’s noteworthy that both of Arkansas’ games against Alabama and LSU are on the road this season. So losing this first one would really put the Hogs in a hole.

Petrino has lost three in a row to Alabama and Nick Saban. In fact, Alabama is the only team that Petrino has lost to three times, period, as a college head coach.

It’s also a team Arkansas has to beat if the Hogs are going to step up in class and make it the Big Three in the West.

“For our program and our football team, it’s a win that we need,” Petrino said. “We have not beat Alabama yet, and we certainly need to do that. More importantly, we need to start off the conference with a victory.”