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Missouri begins SEC-only schedule against No. 2 Alabama; Arkansas hosts No. 4 Georgia

FILE - In this Nov. 29, 2019, file photo, Missouri running back Larry Rountree III finds a hole in the Arkansas defense as he runs the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Little Rock, Ark. Eli Drinkwitz already has experienced just about everything a college football coach could imagine in his first season. Except for playing a game. That will finally change on Sept. 26, 2020, when the Tigers’ new coach leads his team into the opener of its SEC-only schedule against mighty Alabama. (AP Photo/Michael Woods, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 29, 2019, file photo, Missouri running back Larry Rountree III finds a hole in the Arkansas defense as he runs the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Little Rock, Ark. Eli Drinkwitz already has experienced just about everything a college football coach could imagine in his first season. Except for playing a game. That will finally change on Sept. 26, 2020, when the Tigers’ new coach leads his team into the opener of its SEC-only schedule against mighty Alabama. (AP Photo/Michael Woods, File)(Michael Woods | AP)
Published: Sep. 24, 2020 at 8:42 PM CDT
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COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - Second-ranked Alabama and Missouri begin their SEC-only seasons when they meet Saturday at Faurot Field.

The Crimson Tide have national championship aspirations behind an offense led by running back Najee Harris and wide receivers Jaylen Waddle and DeVonte Smith.

The Tigers will be playing their first game under Eli Drinkwitz, who was hired to replace the fired Barry Odom after a 12-win campaign in his only season leading Appalachian State.

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

The second-ranked Crimson Tide will go for their fifth straight win over Missouri when the teams open their SEC-only schedule at Faurot Field. The Tigers will be playing their first game under Eli Drinkwitz, who was hired to replace the fired Barry Odom after a 12-win campaign in his only season leading Appalachian State.

KEY MATCHUP

Missouri’s run game against Alabama LB Dylan Moses: The Tigers return their top three RBs from last season, including Larry Rountree III, who had 829 yards rushing and nine TDs. But they face a big challenge in a Crimson Tide defense led by Moses, a fifth-year senior who will be responsible for getting their young pass rushers and secondary in position.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Alabama: WR Jaylen Waddle shined on special teams, leading the nation in punt return average, but he often was overshadowed by Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III last season. Now, he could join leading receiver DeVonte Smith in a feature role in coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s offense.

Missouri: QB Shawn Robinson, a transfer from TCU, appears to lead redshirt freshman Connor Bazelak in the race to replace the graduated Kelly Bryant. His ability to command Drinkwitz’s offense after an abbreviated spring practice schedule and abnormal summer camp will be crucial to whether the Tigers have any success Saturday and beyond.

FACTS & FIGURES

Alabama has won 26 straight games against SEC East opponents dating to a loss to South Carolina in 2010. The streak includes a 5-0 record in SEC title games. ... The Crimson Tide have beaten 91 straight unranked teams dating to a win over Colorado in the Independence Bowl in December 2007. ... Nick Saban is 13-0 in season openers at Alabama. ... Crimson Tide RB Najee Harris (2,377) needs 269 yards rushing to pass Dennis Riddle and move into the top 10 in school history. ... Smith (23) needs three TD catches to tie Jeudy for second in school history. Amari Cooper had 31. ... Missouri has won its past 14 home openers. ... Rountree (2,748) needs 450 yards rushing to set the school rushing record by a non-QB. ... Missouri LB Nick Bolton had 107 tackles to lead the SEC last season. ... The last time Missouri’s coach made his debut against a ranked opponent was 1978, when Warren Powers led the Tigers to a 3-0 win over then-No. 5 Notre Dame.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) - A nearly month-long postponement to the start of college football in the Southeastern Conference may feel different, but it won’t look much different.

Georgia, as has it has been for much of the last decade or so, is projected to finish near the top of one of the best conferences. Arkansas, has it has been for much of the last few years, is predicted to finish near the bottom. The two will open their seasons against each other Saturday.

The Bulldogs are No. 4 in the nation. The Razorbacks are not anywhere near that, having not beaten a fellow SEC member since October 2017 (Ole Miss). Georgia has hopes of a championship. Arkansas has hopes to win a game.

Their mutual commonality is Arkansas coach Sam Pittman. An offensive line coach with the Razorbacks from 2013 to 2015, Pittman left to take the same job at Georgia and was hired last December to run things at Arkansas after Chad Morris was fired.

Pittman and his old boss, Georgia coach Kirby Smart, remain close.

“Going against a very good friend of mine in coach Sam Pittman, who did just an unbelievable job while he was here,” Smart said. “I know he always had a special place in his heart for Arkansas, and he got this opportunity to go back.”

As expected for a team seemingly in a neverending rebuild, the roster is light at Arkansas. Smart doesn’t have that issue and, in fact, has multiple options at quarterback.

Southern California transfer J.T. Daniels was expected to take a majority of the snaps this season, but an injury has kept him limited. D’Wan Mathis, a carryover from last year’s team, has shined in the preseason and may provide Smart and the Bulldogs with a two-man look in the opener.

Arkansas is hoping its quarterback problems have subsided after 15 interceptions and two fumbles at the position a year ago. Former Florida quarterback Feliepe Franks' primary directive from Pittman has been ball security.

“I think he has more confidence in his wideouts that they’re going to run the proper depth, make the break at the proper time,” Pittman said. “He’s throwing the ball very well right now.”

As for the friendship and familiarity between Pittman and Smart, it is a talking point before the game and little else.

“They’re doing the best job they can to prepare their team and we’re doing the best job we can to prepare ours,” Smart said. “It usually boils down to what the players do on the grass, not what we do as coaches.”

OLD FRIEND, NEW FOE

Pittman left Georgia on positive terms. Having coached college football full-time since 1991, 2020 is the first year he has had an opportunity to have full control of a program as head coach.

Smart holds no grudges for a live-it, breath-it football guy like his former offensive line coach.

“He helped build the foundation of what we have now,” Smart said.

ONE-SIDED

Georgia has dominated the series with Arkansas since the Razorbacks joined the SEC in 1992, winning eight of 10 matchups and the last loss coming in 2010. Saturday’s game will be the first meeting between the Eastern Division Bulldogs and Western Division Razorbacks since 2014.

STRENGTH vs STRENGTH

Arkansas will rely heavily on Rakeem Boyd, who ran for 1,133 yards for an offense that was ranked 13th in the 14-team SEC. The Bulldogs may not have much issue with that. Georgia led not only the SEC, but all of FBS, last year in rushing defense, allowing just 74.6 yards per game on the ground and the Bulldogs had eight players named to the various preseason All-SEC teams.

SO CLOSE, YET SO FAR

Georgia has been ranked in the preseason Top 25 each of the last 10 years. The Bulldogs have finished a season in the top 10 five of those years. Only once, however, has Georgia made a College Football Playoff. Arkansas is by far the easiest early-season opponent this year as the Bulldogs' next five opponents are all currently ranked in the Top 25, including three in the top 10.

FOOTBALL IN A PANDEMIC

Capacity at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, which can normally hold upwards of 76,000 spectators, will be limited to about 16,000. Pre- and post-game tailgating, a common Saturday tradition, is also not permitted on campus, per state guidelines.

Copyright 2020 AP. All rights reserved.

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