The Monday before his appearance at SEC Media Days, Arkansas running back Knile Davis was so excited about his all-time best bench press of 430 pounds that he sent out a message on Twitter, which along with his 550 squat and 4.29 time in the 40 had Razorback fans abuzz.
So what was said to him to inspire such a lift?
“Pretend it’s Alabama,” Davis explained to reporters.
Yes, a full season has passed since the Crimson Tide won its 13th national championship, but one would hardly know it heading into fall camp, with player reporting Thursday.
Despite falling short last year, Alabama is overwhelmingly considered the team to beat in the Southeastern Conference. During recent media voting it had had 16 players selected for preseason All-SEC honors, nine first-team, both being records. The various preseason watch lists for national awards already have 32 Crimson Tide names on them.
“I love all the expectations,” junior running back Trent Richardson said. “At the end of the day, I want to live up to that. I want to be able to say like ‘Hey, I did that’ or ‘We did that.’ At the same time, it’s hard because you got a big target on your back, but that’s nothing to be scared of.”
Yes, the bullseye is still fixed squarely on the Crimson Tide, which on Thursday morning will likely be ranked first or second when the first coaches’ poll of the season is released. Granted, eight opponents weren’t able to schedule byes the Saturday before playing Alabama like in 2010, but Vanderbilt and Ole Miss will have that advantage this season, while both UA and LSU will be off Halloween weekend before playing on Nov. 5.
However, with most believing that reigning national champion Auburn will be much closer to .500 than undefeated, Alabama is still in many ways considered the benchmark.
“Every time I look at Alabama before the game in warmups, they always look the same to me,” Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said as a compliment.
Consider Alabama’s three losses from a year ago. Auburn and LSU fans may still be celebrating, and while South Carolina reached the SEC Championship Game for the first time its crowning achievement, arguably, was notching the program’s first victory over a No. 1 opponent.
After getting that taste of success, the Gamecocks found that they liked it and now want more.
“That attitude is real, it changed fast obviously,” defensive tackle Travian Robertson said. “I think we have a positive attitude going into this season. We have a lot of guys trying to lead the team.”
Additionally, Arkansas’ near-miss after having the lead in the fourth quarter had a similar affect and helped spark the Razorbacks to a six-game win streak and Sugar Bowl appearance (a 31-26 loss to Ohio State that has already been vacated).
“The biggest hump was after the Alabama game,” Arkansas defensive end Tenarius Wright said. “After we lost that game we realized that we had the potential to win a lot of games.”
That confidence has also carried over to this season, with the Razorbacks eager for the rematch on Sept. 24 at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Not only will it be their SEC opener and first road game, but after opening against Missouri State, New Mexico and Troy it could key Arkansas’ whole season – never mind obvious chance at some payback.
“That’s not the only reason why we’re looking forward to going to Alabama,” wide receiver Jarius Wright said. “Alabama is a good team. It’s going to be a great game and great competition. That game is going to get us ready for the rest of the season.
“Against great opponents you usually get better or you get worse. Most likely you’re not going to stay the same.”
Alabama, of course, had to lick its wounds after the 28-27 loss to Auburn, but turned around and used it while preparing to face co-Big Ten champion Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl. The 49-7 rout served as a springboard for what would be an otherwise horrific offseason that included the devastating tornado and death of offensive lineman Aaron Douglas.
“With some people that can be motivation, with some it can be pressure,” senior safety Mark Barron said about the high expectations. “Some people may not be able to deal with that pressure.
“I think people learn from that.”
So while Coach Nick Saban does his usual downplaying and Alabama remains in the news no matter what, the spotlight remains and reflects in numbers ways. For example, Richardson is already considered a candidate for the Maxwell (outstanding player), Walter Camp (player of the year), and Doak Walker (best running back) awards, and touted as a viable contender for the Heisman Trophy before going through a single practice.
“I don’t think it’ll be tough to be focused at all,” he said about the hype. “I can’t turn on SportsCenter all the time, keep up with all that talk about my strengths and weaknesses.
“I can’t let it get to me.”