Lost in Alabama’s most recent gains this fall is recognition that the SEC West is at risk of becoming boring without a villain for the Crimson Tide.
Arkansas would fit the role perfectly.
We’ve reached a crossroads within the SEC’s most relevant division. Alabama’s former foils – LSU and Auburn – have faded with coaching drama overtaking both programs. Ole Miss had a fine run the past two years, but Nick Saban exorcised that demon earlier this season. Questions about an NCAA investigation have allowed fog to roll in to Oxford, Miss. Texas A&M enjoyed a strong September, but the Aggies have yet to prove they can stick around without Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans. Mississippi State is treading water without Dak Prescott.
Yes, a Razorbacks rise would be the best result for SEC fans who don’t allow “Roll Tide!” to roll off their tongues on game days. An Arkansas victory on Saturday in Fayetteville would be a fine way to kick off a fresh rivalry that would enhance the conference’s image.
The Crimson Tide need a villain to improve the SEC’s health. It’s bad for the league when you can say, “It’s Alabama and everyone else,” and that’s where we stand five games into the season.
The conference has three unbeaten teams left, and one will go down after Tennessee and Texas A&M play Saturday at Kyle Field. There are significant reasons to doubt the lasting power of both those programs, mainly because they’re led by men who faced major questions about their leadership qualities a few months ago.
Only Arkansas offers the flair and charisma that would make a long standoff with Alabama fascinating.
Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema is interesting in public, and Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban is a prickly bore. Bielema could become the Rex Ryan to Saban’s Bill Belichick, serving as a big personality who spoils Saban’s mad-scientist visions every now and then.
Arkansas appears ready to make such a jump. After slopping around with 18 victories in Bielema’s first three seasons, the Razorbacks are more mature in their 4-1 start this season.
Quarterback Austin Allen has looked composed in the pocket, throwing for 1,232 yards with 12 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. The running game, led by Rawleigh Williams III, has been sufficient. Beyond a fourth-quarter collapse against Texas A&M on Sept. 24, the defense has done enough to make Arkansas competitive.
Then there’s Arkansas’ recent history against the Crimson Tide. Alabama squeaked past the Hogs by a point in its most recent visit to Fayetteville. The Razorbacks were within a field goal of the Crimson Tide entering the fourth quarter last year before Alabama broke away for a 13-point victory. Arkansas has been oh-so-close to toppling the Tide.
A Razorbacks victory Saturday would sting the SEC’s ego, but it would be beneficial for the league in the long run.
Power unchecked damages the SEC West and the conference as a whole. During the Saban era in Tuscaloosa, the league has been most interesting when there was a real alternative to Alabama in the SEC West, whether it was LSU during Les Miles’ best moments in Baton Rouge or Auburn when Cam Newton carried the Tigers before Kick Six was added to Iron Bowl lore. The friction created by a villain for the Crimson Tide made the conference sexier.
Watching a living dynasty is exhilarating, but there’s danger in the dominance. Dynasties can zap the will from competitors nearby, leaving a conference dull and stale. With LSU and Auburn navigating through uncertain times, in large part because of Saban’s success, the SEC is in need of a fresh face to stand up to Alabama and offer an alternative to the Crimson Tide that the league desperately needs.
Arkansas offers the right combination of potential and made-for-TV appeal that would make it the best SEC West program to fill the villain vacuum.
Outside of Alabama fans, who wouldn’t enjoy seeing Bielema tweak Saban?
Outside of Alabama fans, who wouldn’t enjoy seeing the Razorbacks’ grind-it-out style lift them to Atlanta every few years?
Outside of Alabama fans, who wouldn’t enjoy more drama in the division?
So don’t root for the Crimson Tide to continue to trample through their schedule. The best thing that can happen for the SEC is for a program to assert itself as a potential national contender, with a victory against Alabama as its springboard. We’ve seen it happen before, and it can happen again.
Arkansas has that opportunity Saturday.
Everyone should appreciate the sustained success Alabama has enjoyed. But there should be concern about where the SEC West is headed if everyone remains parked in the Crimson Tide’s shadow.
The Razorbacks can make a statement this weekend that they’re ready to make a giant leap forward. The development would make the rest of this fall more appealing and create valuable intrigue for years to come.