Even as Arkansas sojourned over the weekend, the free world of SEC football spun almost wildly off its axis and triggered future storylines for the Hogs as they embark on the remainder of a schedule that was already seen as grueling.
The events of Oct. 4 altered the West divisional landscape dramatically while the 0-2 Razorbacks seek out a means of escape from the cellar. In the wake of the collapse at Arlington against Texas A&M, when certain victory got ensnared in defeat’s filthy jaws at the end, Arkansas looks like arguably one of the best 25 teams in the country, and may still finish with a losing record at the end of it all.
First, consider that the Hogs will come off the bye week to face an assuredly hostile Alabama team that is reeling from blowing an 11-point second-half lead in a 23-17 loss at Ole Miss. That game, the second of a two-act Mississippi uprising on Saturday, was as rough-and-tumble as anticipated and it wreaked havoc on the Tide in numerous ways. For beginners, Nick Saban teams are thoroughly unaccustomed to being overmatched in the trenches, but the Rebels shored up their protection of Bo Wallace in the second half and he delivered three touchdown strikes as a result. The running game also shook off early struggles, and perhaps most damning, Alabama’s offense was bereft of any kind of big-play threat. Amari Cooper was checked, Blake Sims was unsteady and Kenyan Drake was sent out of the game before halftime on a garish leg injury.
Frankly, but for a gift touchdown that should’ve been negated by an obvious facemask grab that wasn’t called, Alabama would have lost this game by a wider margin. This was the most undisciplined performance by a Tide team since a demonstrative favorite gagged badly against Utah in a BCS matchup six seasons ago, and it wasn’t just penalties, turnovers and further kicking woes that brought home that point. Indeed, Alabama looked mortal, unimposing and thoroughly beatable.
Should that give Arkansas encouragement? Well, keep in mind that this very atypical occurrence happened shortly after Mississippi State beat the brakes off the very Texas A&M team that Arkansas couldn’t quite conquer seven days beforehand, and Dak Prescott efficiently swapped places with alleged wunderkind Kenny Hill on the Heisman watch list with a five-touchdown effort. The Bulldogs took a cudgel to an already-weakened Aggie defense from the get-go at Starkville.
The Hogs, therefore, may be drawing Alabama at home at the ideal time, or at the worst time, because it’s apparent gospel that Saban-coached teams will be especially nasty in the aftermath of a rare loss. But why? Keep in mind that the Tide unthinkably choked away a road win at Auburn last year in an eerily similar game to the one that Oxford hosted, and then, with weeks to prepare against underdog Oklahoma, got run off the Superdome turf by the Sooners. That wasn’t the first two-game losing streak of Saban’s distinguished tenure, either — note above that when his then-unbeaten team got taken down by Florida in the 2008 SEC Championship Game, the next defeat was to the Utes weeks later.
You can extract as much or as little as you wish from that historical nugget, but you can bet that Arkansas coaches are using the shakeup to point out something. This division, as brutal as it may be, paradoxically clarifies the roadmap needed for success. How does Arkansas hope to win in this league, you ask? Well, the question was posed to Auburn last year, and it answered with authority, and now two long-suffering programs in the Magnolia State are taking out all their frustrations on the teams that had rooted themselves at the pinnacle of the league. (Don’t forget about Auburn putting a 34-point spanking on LSU last Saturday night, which planted the latter Tigers further into the pits than Arkansas is at this stage.)
Saturday night in Fayetteville, these rather healthy Hogs get a depleted and shaky Alabama team in their house. We’ve talked about how those 52-0 games the past two seasons must be sent to the proverbial dustbin with emphasis, and the plate has been set for that to happen, but a moral victory won’t do the trick, either. With six meaty chances left for the Razorbacks to validate their widely championed improvement, this is the first and most meaningful. To kill a six-game skid against a titan will be anything but simple, but as it is often said after a game like the one at Vaught-Hemingway last week, the blueprint on how to beat Alabama in 2014 has been created early and it’s one that Arkansas will borrow from liberally.