Facing Sports Illustrated’s accusation that Alabama is Arkansas’ ‘least important’ enemy in 2022

“If you start out depressed, everything is kind of a nice surprise.”

Lloyd Dobler’s spirit was irrepressible at the end, but for quite a while John Cusack’s iconic rom-com character struggled. The classic 1989 movie “Say Anything” contains many maxims that apply to post-adolescent attitudes and behaviors. And we sports fans are nothing if we’re not post-teens, no matter what date we were born.

Some sports fans go into each season counting on their team winning every game. The sky is the limit, so to speak. They’re the type to say things like, “Hey, everyone starts 0-0.” It’s an admirable quality even if it’s not terribly honest in its intent and analytical ability. Other types of fans are like Lloyd. They go into a season relying on things going wrong so they can feel positive emotions when something goes wrong. It’s a defense mechanism. And a wet blanket.

We all lean more to one side than the other, whether we are totally on one side or not. More than Sports Illustrated All Hogs site, the latter seems more applicable.

Writer Kent Smith has ranked all 12 Arkansas football games this upcoming season from least important to most important. No need to go through them all here with analysis because his work is sufficient in itself. But a point to raise is what is marked as least consequential.

Smith wrote that this place belongs to the game of Alabama. Here’s why:

“Arkansas came a bad call away from potentially upsetting Alabama last year. While victory would have been a huge feather in Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman’s cap and propelled Arkansas further into the spotlight, the annual battle with the Crimson Tide has been the smallest game on the Razorback schedule in a long time.

“A loss to Alabama doesn’t move the needle and neither do close battles. Barely losing to Nick Saban’s crew meant as much last year as when a missed extra point cost the Hogs in the Bret Bielema era. A win would be important, but in terms of how much a win helps versus the damage a loss does, there’s not much to see here because the loss means nothing.

On the surface, that makes sense. Arkansas hasn’t beaten the Crimson Tide since 2006. It’s not a major knock against the Razorbacks as only two teams have more than a win or two over Nick Saban’s group in the last 16 years. SEC foes Tennessee have the same 16-game losing streak against Alabama. Arkansas’ streak is long and unlikely to change. Eventually it has to — and it got awfully close last year — but for now, Alabama will remain a heavy favorite.

This is, however, why Arkansas vs. Alabama is actually important.

Alabama will be no worse than No. 2 in all major polls entering the season. And No. 2 would push him. It’s possible (probably?) that Crimson Tide is the unanimously favored team in all publications. They have averaged 1.1 losses per season since 2011. Given the magnitude of the opposition, the game, by definition, cannot be ranked last in importance. Beating them is huge no matter who you are. Especially if you’re from Arkansas.

Or a team like the Razorbacks. You see, coach Sam Pittman has the Arkansas fandom as high as it has been since the height of the Bobby Petrino era. The Hogs have their most dynamic quarterback since Ryan Mallett, a running back stable that rivals all but the most elite in the sport, possibly one of the top five offensive lines in FBS, a secondary with a million guys of experience. Things are looking up.

And because they are so positive, so are the expectations. Pittman led Arkansas to a 9-4 record last year and as the saying goes, if you don’t get better, you get worse. No one but Arkansas football fans has the Hogs matching that plus-four regular season winning differential. ESPN’s FPI (disclosure: the author helped develop the FPI in its early days) predicts the Razorbacks will go either 6-6 or 7-5. While such a record would still be positive in most eyes, it doesn’t match last year, which would ultimately be a disappointment for some.

Importance of Arkansas vs. Alabama

Beating Alabama, even with a 7-5 final record, would make this a successful season. The Tide aren’t going to lose more than three games in total and even that number I’d bet against. Two max. Losing to Alabama in a 7-5 season is not a big deal. Adding to the intrigue is when the date with the Crimson Tide drops. Saban and the crew visit Fayetteville on October 1, the fifth game of the season. Games against Cincinnati, South Carolina, Missouri State and Texas A&M all come before. Arkansas could be 4-0 by then – like last year when they met the best team in the country – meaning College GameDay would likely make its first stop in Fayetteville since 2006, when Darren McFadden rushed for 181 yards and two scores in No. 11 Arkansas’ 31-14 win over 13th Tennessee.

This Arkansas team flirted with the BCS before things fell into a two-game skid to end the regular season. Five years later, the Razorbacks did it again before Alabama put an end to those dreams. Point? Arkansas needs to get past the best of the best to reach its maximum potential under Pittman and Alabama still represents the best of the best even though Georgia got the better of the Crimson Tide last year.

But even Arkansas at 3-1 or 2-2 at that point, Alabama would be just as important, possibly swinging the season one way or the other. The Hogs at 1-3 or – heaven forbid, because things will have fallen apart – 0-4 going into this game, the game is 100% moot, with the Razorbacks having already fallen to inferior opponents.

It’s Dobler-type thinking and in Pittman’s day, it’s not something that should happen anymore. Say what you want, but the Tide remains the key to unlocking Arkansas’ future.

About Laurence Johnson

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