There was a time on this planet when traveling from one pole to the other was a virtually impossible journey, involving sled dogs, long treks gnawing on walrus sushi and so forth through the Arctic.
If you succeeded, you’d go sailing thousands of miles across open ocean into the equatorial heat and down to Antarctica, living on salted fish, pushing the dog teams past all canine endurance and finally freezing to death in a sad igloo and hoping that a better-equipped team of explorers would find your well-preserved remains and your intact journal 40 years or so in the future.
Getting from one pole to the other on the Southeastern Conference football landscape isn’t as tough. That’s not to say any route from Tuscaloosa to U.S. 78 (or Corridor X or I-22, the newer name) is easy. But you make your way to Memphis, head to Little Rock, once described by a slightly confused Lieutenant Dan, speaking to Forrest Gump, as “a fine town.” From there, you head gradually up into the Ozarks (if you ever have time, take The Pig Trail) and reach Fayetteville, Arkansas. The other end of the spectrum.
Since mid-2016, Alabama has lost one SEC football game. In the same span, the Arkansas Razorbacks have won the same number — one. That is the very definition of “polar opposites.”
It hasn’t always been so. Not long after Arkansas joined the SEC, it was Alabama that was wandering in a haze. In a 12-year stretch from 1995 to 2006, Arkansas won seven meetings out of 12. Some were controversial — Alabama fans are convinced the game-winning pass in Arkansas’ 20-19 victory in 1995 was a one-hopper. Some were inexplicable — an unmotivated 1998 Alabama team took a 42-6 thrashing in Fayetteville. But as with so many things, everything changed in 2007 and Alabama will be looking for its 13th straight win in the series on Saturday, a prohibitive favorite even without its star quarterback.
Another measure? Nick Saban wasn’t even asked a question about Arkansas at his Monday press conference. To be fair, the Tagovailoa Topic overshadowed all else, but it was still noticeable.
So a few facts: Arkansas’ last SEC win came on October 28, 2017 at Ole Miss. The Razorbacks are 0-4 in the league this year, fluctuating between games in which they played well enough but couldn’t get over the hump (Kentucky, Texas A&M) to a sloppy blowout by Auburn last week. There has been an ongoing quarterback battle between Ben Hicks (ex-SMU) and Nick Starkel (ex-Texas A&M), each of whom can throw well enough, of not always (especially in Starkel’s case) to their own teammates. The best offensive player is the tight end, Cheyenne O’Grady. One of the great consistencies of Arkansas football is that there is always a good tight end, if not two.
If a healthy Tagovailoa were playing, an upset would be more or less unthinkable. Mac Jones, this week’s replacement, has the full support of his coach and teammates but since he is an unknown, it’s possible to imagine a scenario where it’s rainy and wet, Jones struggles, turns the ball over, can’t engineer a comeback and so forth. That might be no more improbable, from a Las Vegas standpoint, than Illinois beating Wisconsin. That’s except for (a.) Alabama is at home, (b.) the Crimson Tide is light years better than Wisconsin offensively and (c.) such upsets occur once every 15 years or so, not every Saturday.
There is at least an intriguing storyline at work. Plus, Arkansas did hang in with Texas A&M. The two programs are still polar opposites — but it’s only fair to acknowledge that Arkansas does exist.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt