Arkansas game has big implications

Week four of college football has come to mean that Alabama is about to face Arkansas in its SEC opener. Over the past 10 years, there have been a few exceptions to this, but six out of the past seven years, it’s been Alabama against Arkansas in week four.

Even when Arkansas wasn’t considered a contender for the SEC West division, this game has always had a direct impact on the rest of Alabama’s season. Lately, it has become even more crucial for the Crimson Tide to win, because both teams have risen to the top of the SEC.

Alabama’s all-time record against Arkansas is 14-7. Since 2002, Alabama has gone 6-3 against the Razorbacks, coinciding with six winning seasons, two losing seasons and one tied.

Last year’s game was the Tide’s first big challenge of the season. Not only was it a road game and the SEC opener, but Arkansas was ranked No. 10 going into the game, with its Heisman-hopeful quarterback Ryan Mallet.

That game was a close call, as Alabama pulled out the win late in the fourth quarter. However, the Tide did win 24-20 and followed up that win with a huge home win over the then-No. 7 Florida Gators, 31-6.

The last time Alabama lost to Arkansas was in 2006. After a 10-2 season in 2005, Tide fans were hopeful that 2006 could be another step toward glory. However, in a disappointing 24-23 overtime loss, those hopes were squashed at the end of September. It was the team’s first lost of the season, and then Alabama followed up that loss with a loss to Florida.

That year also happened to be Mike Shula’s last year as head coach. Not to be dramatic, but after that particular loss to Arkansas, I expected that Shula’s time at Alabama would soon come to a close. For those of you who don’t remember, it was the game in which Alabama missed three field goals and the extra point in overtime. Why Shula kept going for field goals when the kicker consistently missed showcased his conservative nature, which eventually resulted in him being fired.

Taking the importance of this series just one step further, in Nick Saban’s time at Alabama, it seems the closer the score in the Arkansas game, the worse a season the Tide has.  In 2007, Saban’s first year, the final score was 41-38, and Alabama’s record that season was 7-6 overall, 4-4 in the SEC. In 2008 and 2009, Alabama defeated the Hogs soundly and had two undefeated regular seasons, plus a national championship. Then after a close game last year, the Tide lost three crucial games later in the season.

The 2011 game between the two has been hyped because Arkansas is yet again an offensive machine. Tyler Wilson has thrown for 822 yards through week three with five touchdowns and two interceptions. The Hogs are averaging 517 yards per game, with most of it coming from the passing game.

On top of that, Arkansas’ top two wide receivers, Jarius Write and Cobi Hamilton, are fifth and sixth in reception yards in the SEC this season.

Alabama’s passing defense is currently No. 5 in the country and No. 1 in the SEC, holding its opponents to 115 passing yards a game. Last year’s defense was young, which made the game a close call, but this year’s defense is more experienced and among the top in the nation.

Alabama is the higher ranked team, and the Tide has the home advantage. The team has the talent and the drive to overcome any and every opponent this year. Alabama should win this game, but that doesn’t mean it will.