In one stunning evening, one of the biggest games on the Alabama football schedule has become one of the most mysterious.
There was no safer bet on the Crimson Tide schedule, one would have thought, than facing an undefeated Arkansas team. The Razorbacks opened with Jacksonville State and Louisiana-Monroe and, assumption being what it is, no one imagined an upset. One can almost visualize Nick Saban, fresh off a diatribe that specifically included Lousiana-Monroe because of its 2007 victory in Tuscaloosa, nodding his head, wryly smiling and saying, "That's why you never assume."
Suddenly, the dynamic has changed - but not the danger. That is especially true if Razorback quarterback Tyler Wilson can overcome the unspecified "above the shoulder" injury. If Wilson is healthy enough to play, and clear-headed enough to practice, he gives Arkansas at least some chance.
Alabama comes out of Saturday's 35-0 win over Western Kentucky with its own improvements to make. The impetus isn't desparation, as it is in Fayetteville. The Tide won comfortably, maintaining its No. 1 ranking instead of suffering a near-historic expulsion from The Associated Press poll. Arkansas fell completely out of the rankings from No. 8 after its loss. But Alabama's championship goals won't survive too many more six-sack games, and if Saturday's action around the country did not illustrate the value of minimizing the number of hits AJ McCarron takes, nothing will.
Part of that will come with better individual pass protection, but another reason Western Kentucky rushed with impunity was the fact Alabama never established a consistent running attack. As center Barrett Jones noted, "It's tough to block when they have two more defenders (in the box) than we have blockers." Alabama occasionally exploited that - see McCarron's four touchdown passes - but it needs to do more to back teams off the line. That becomes even more urgent if the brawniest Tide running back, Jalston Fowler, is out due to the scary-looking knee injury he suffered against WKU.
Alabama has to face an SEC opponent whose entire season is on the line. So is its coach's future, in ways that are unique to the peculiar Arkansas situation. With the loss to ULM, Smith has no chance of landing the Razorback job - his stated goal - without getting to Atlanta for the SEC title game, at least. A loss to Alabama and a once-promising season - Skip Bayless picked Arkansas to win the BCS title, probably a kiss of death that could not be overcome - might go completely down the tubes before autumn arrives.
Even as the ULM game wound to its improbable conclusion, there was a sense it wasn't the best thing that could happen to Alabama. It made a dangerous opponent into a desperate one - a difficult proposition for a team playing its first true road game, even if that team is ranked No. 1.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.