Arkansas travels to Athens this weekend to take on the Georgia Bulldogs, and that is a game which Alabama fans ought to give especially close attention. For Arkansas, the Hogs have to be salivating at the sight of UGA's terrible tackling, and while A.J. Green expects to hear the result of his appeal today, no one seemingly expects to see him back in action this weekend. Having said that, Bobby Petrino has been a dud in conference road games -- a lowly 1-7 since arriving in Fayetteville -- and browsing the college football odds the betting class actually has UGA as a narrow favorite.
Even so, why the close attention?
Consider this... if Arkansas beats Georgia next week, they move to 1-0 in conference play. No big deal in and of itself. But if they can beat Alabama the following weekend, the Hogs are 2-0 and it's a completely different outlook. That would give Arkansas the head-to-head tiebreaker over Alabama, it would give Alabama a divisional loss (another key factor in tiebreakers), and with Alabama and Georgia added as wins to the resume, suddenly the rest of the schedule sets up nicely for the Hogs with two of its toughest games already added to the win column.
Keep in mind that Arkansas does not have Florida on the rotational conference schedule this season (unlike Alabama and LSU). In the Gators' place, Arkansas gets Vanderbilt, easily the worst team in the entire conference. Beyond the lowly Commodores, both Ole Miss and Mississippi State should pose no real threat, and given the early returns from Opelika the odds are probably not very good that Auburn can get the job done either come mid-October. The two most formidable foes remaining would be South Carolina and LSU.
For Alabama, if we falter in Fayetteville in ten days, panic mode may be the appropriate response. If we lose to Arkansas then suddenly we're going to have to run the table -- no small task in its own right, obviously -- and then hope the Hogs slip up twice down the stretch just for us to make it back to Atlanta (again, no small task given that Arkansas will have then added two of its most difficult conference opponents to the win column). Truth be told, if we lose there, I don't think there is any question that Arkansas becomes the odds-on favorite to win the SEC West. Being defending national champions and the clear #1 team in the country is nice, but that's all ancient history with a loss in Fayetteville.
In short, while you obviously want to win all of the games, invariably some are more important than others, and with that context in mind we can seemingly afford to lose to the Hogs less than any other team on the schedule. Losing to, say, Florida or South Carolina would certainly be disappointing, but at least they are non-divisional opponents and if all else goes to plan then we should have the opportunity to avenge that loss come early December. Likewise, a loss to a team like Auburn, Mississippi State, or Ole Miss wouldn't have near the tiebreaker implications because none of those teams are legitimately expected to be major players in the SEC West race. Even with a loss to LSU, we still have decent odds at Atlanta -- sure we may have to run the table from there to make it happen, but LSU must go to Gainesville in a few weeks, and The Hat has somehow managed at least two conference losses per year in Baton Rouge with the odds likely that he will hit that mark again this year (if not surpass it). Lose to Arkansas, though, and there will inevitably be a lot of hoping and praying for upsets on down the stretch, and one giant helpless feeling as November draws to a close.
I've long since written in this space that I expect us to have a loss somewhere in 2010, but the truth of the matter is that loss needs to come anywhere but in Fayetteville. It looks to be a down year in college football, and it seems likely that a one-loss team could easily earn a berth in the BCS Championship Game. If that turns out to be the case, given the recent dominance of the SEC, you have to assume that a one-loss SEC champion has a better chance than any other one-loss team of making it to Glendale. For Alabama, that may earn us a freebie loss somewhere on the schedule as long as we can win the SEC West and make it back to Atlanta. But you have to win the West and get back to Atlanta first for that to even be a possibility, and if we fall at the hands of the Hogs in ten days, it's going to take two months of flawless play on our end and plenty of good fortunes from the Football Gods for us to even make it that far. Let's hope UGA lends us an early helping hand this weekend.