SEC: Arkansas’ Big Choice

On the kind of college football weekend when outside errands might actually be tolerable–and maybe even attractive (yes, the games could be that bad on Sept. 23)–one of the few genuinely intriguing matchups comes from the SEC: Saturday’s tilt between Alabama and Arkansas in Fayetteville.

This game is significant because it matches the two teams in the middle section of the SEC West. The winner of this game will have a chance to play its way into second place in the divisison (though it will be far from likely to reach that high a position), while also getting a spot that’s two or three places higher on the pecking order for bowl invitations. But what makes this game fascinating–not just important–is that it marks the occasion when both teams, especially Arkansas, will be forced to choose what kind of team they want to be in 2006.

This is indeed a contest that will shape the identity and personality of both ballclubs for the rest of the season. Alabama–after three home dates against less-than-overwhelming opposition (though Vanderbilt, despite an 0-3 record and the absence of Jay Cutler, is nothing to sneeze at this year)–finally leaves the comfy confines of Tuscaloosa to play a division road game. Nothing like a trip to Fayetteville (and a subsequent trip to Gainesville the following week, for that matter) to tell Mike Shula exactly where his team truly stands on a larger scale. This is a grow-up-and-find-out-what-you’re-made-of moment for the Crimson Tide.

But as much of an identity-maker as this is for Alabama, it’s an even bigger personality test for the Hogs, coach Houston Nutt, and freshman quarterback Mitch Mustain.

Two reasonable people could very easily see the Arkansas season to date and gain diametrically opposing viewpoints. The optimistic view of the Razorbacks’ 2-1 start is that the Hogs are on a two-game winning streak, even with a young team that–with a very young signal-caller thrown into the fire earlier than many had expected–was able to survive a testy conference opener on the road against Vanderbilt. The Arkansas optimist would say that merely beating Vanderbilt–even by the slightest of margins–with Mustain under center represented a huge positive turning point for this team and program. Confidence–and its cousin, named “Team Unity”–will lead a transformed bunch of Hogs to a solid 2006 campaign, now that the Vandy crucible was successfully endured. Memories of the ugly loss to Southern California, in which the whole ballclub and its quarterbacks seemed divided and testy throughout the second half, are long gone. That’s the positive spin on Arkansas’ season at this poi nt.

But one could just as rationally see trouble in the Arkansas camp as well. It’s entirely legitimate to think that a narrow two-point win over Vandy–on the strength of a missed Commodore field goal at the gun (which was accurate but short)–is reflective of a team still groping for better on-field leadership and technical excellence. The Hogs’ vaunted ground game, with Darren McFadden, has yet to display the potency and big-play capability that must emerge if Houston Nutt’s team expects to be special this season. Mustain has evident talent, but in terms of winning ballgames against formidable competition, this season might be too early for the freshman to display the full measure of his abilities. If winning games and satisfying Hog fans are Nutt’s main goals this year, Mustain might not be the man for the job; and after all, he wasn’t viewed as the main man under center when August camp ended (Robert Johnson, the opening-night starter against USC, earned that distinction, wi th Casey Dick on the outside looking in).

All in all, an interpretation of the Hogs’ season rests on the Vanderbilt game: was it a cathartic escape in an early-season pressure cooker, or was it a sloppy and lucky win that only temporarily masked some major deficiencies? This game against Alabama–a team that has many of Vandy’s same attributes (a good defense-bad offense combination, for the most part), but with an entirely different football pedigree–will say a ton about Arkansas’ real football identity. Accordingly, this game will show Houston Nutt what decisions he needs to make throughout the rest of the 2006 season… and how secure his job might be under the watchful eye of his boss, Frank Broyles.

This Saturday in Fayetteville will be filled with tension and uncertainty. The home folks will be anxious underneath the ear-splitting roars they’ll provide, because their beloved Razorbacks will be faced with a very big and fundamental choice: what kind of team do they want to be? The answer to that question will almost certainly be the biggest story of an SEC weekend that’s as dull as the previous weekend was exciting.