Bill Brown, Guest Commentator
September 20, 2011
SEC football is filled with rivalries of great significance. There’s the oldest rivalry (Auburn-Georgia), the fiercest in the USA (Alabama-Auburn), the intra-state rivalries (The Egg Bowl, Tennessee-Vandy), and what the late Lewis Grizzard called “the annual celebration of the repeal of Prohibition” (Georgia-Florida). But the expansion of the SEC has created at least two three rivalries that were below the radar prior to 20 years ago: Florida-Tennessee, Auburn-LSU and Alabama-Arkansas. It is this latter rivalry that contains great significance that is lost by most conference watchers but cannot be underestimated:
(Rabid fans of either team might quickly point out that in 2002, Alabama thumped the Razorbacks yet Arkansas won the West. That is true; however, they only won the West because Alabama was ineligible for the title. Since both teams finished with the same record, Alabama would have won the West by virtue of the head-to-head).
That means that history shows the loser of this game is pretty much competing for the Capitol One Bowl at best. The team that loses this game is most likely eliminated from the national title, SEC championship, and division title picture. While one loss theoretically does not eliminate an SEC team from the national title game, that one-loss team must win the conference. And that is a next-to-impossible order when you need the team that beat you to lose twice while you run the table.
Furthemore, how good has this game been? Of the 19 previous games, NINE of them (that’s about half) have come down literally to the last play (1994-95-97-99-00-03-06-07-10). Three of them have turned on questionable or downright incorrect officiating calls, all ironically to the benefit of the Razorbacks. Two of the contests have gone overtime, both won by Arkansas and both due to issues with Alabama’s kicking game. This early SEC clash sets the stage for what is to follow for both teams. Consider this: only twice (2004 and 2007) did the loser of this game wind up with a better record than the winner. The good news we can infer from such data is that whichever team wins this game was, in fact, the better team much more often than not. The downside is that perhaps this game serves as the first pebble in the rock slide, a sort of de facto elimination game for the loser. While momentum should not be lost in a mid-to-late-September game, the facts speak for themselves: the history over the 20 years of the rivalry shows the loser has been unable to recover and win even so much as the division. From 1996-2008, the Razorbacks opened their SEC schedule against Alabama all but 3 times. This will mark the fourth year in a row that Alabama opens SEC play with Arkansas.
Nick Saban himself has been quite successful against Arkansas, compiling a 7-2 record since his days at LSU. Bobby Petrino is new to the game, sporting a record of 0-3 against the Tide. Last year was his closest effort, and this year probably marks his best team in four years at Fayetteville. Both teams bring inexperienced QBs into the game, and both are highly touted in the rankings.
Both teams wear shades of red with white. Both have a large A as their symbol. (I lived in Little Rock for four years, and it used to set me off to look and see a sporting goods store with the red hat and “A” only to run up to it and see “Razorbacks” underneath it). Both have won national championships, with the Hawgs sharing the 1964 title with Alabama (a fact that Frank Broyles still will not concede to this day). Both have rabid fan bases made up (in my experience anyway) of mostly nice folk.
One dare not underestimate the importance of this game. While it is true that one game a season doth not make, the past trends shows recovery even to the point of divisional champion is virtually impossible. While none of the players is a football historian (they aren’t old enough) and coaches will downplay it, make no mistake: the winner of Saturday’s game takes a first giant step towards the division title.