A Big Early-Season Game

There is a big football game in Gainesville, Florida, this weekend. Both visiting Tennessee and home-standing Florida think victory is critical to their Southeastern Conference Eastern Division championship hopes. (Steve Spurrier is probably getting a laugh about that.)

Alabama hosting Arkansas in Tuscaloosa's Bryant-Denny Stadium doesn't have quite the national attention – or even regional interest – as does Tennessee at Florida, but for the Crimson Tide the stakes are very high. For one thing, it is the first true test for Bama under Coach Nick Saban.

More important, Alabama almost always gets a good idea of how the season is going to go based on this early-season match-up of Southeastern Conference opponents.

No one thinks that the winner of this game is in the driver's seat for the SEC Western Division championship. Almost everyone has conceded that title to the Saban-recruited Tigers at LSU. The loser of the Tide vs. Hogs match-up, though, is practically out of the race before it begins.

Who says so?

That would be history.

Arkansas game into the SEC in 1992 and Alabama played Arkansas in Little Rock in the third game of the season. As everyone who follows Bama knows, 19921 was a very good year. Coach Gene Stallings' Tide drowned the Razorbacks by a 38-11 margin en route to a 13-0 season and the national championship.

In 1993, Alabama put a slightly worse hurtin' on the Hogs, 43-3 in Tuscaloosa. That Bama squad went 9-3-1 on the field (although NCAA forfeits changed the record to 1-12, including awarding the Razorbacks a win to be proud of).

Things were tougher in Alabama's first trip to Fayetteville in 1994 with Alabama able to eke out a 13-6 win. That Crimson Tide came within a whisker of an undefeated season, losing 24-23 to Florida in the SEC Championship Game and turning in a 12-1 record.

Sloppy officiating has been a part of the Alabama-Arkansas series, and in 1995 it resulted in the Razorbacks leaving Tuscaloosa with a 20-19 victory. That Tide squad slipped to 8-3.

In 1996, it was Alabama back on the winning side, 17-7 in Little Rock, and Stallings' last Crimson Tide squad made it to the SEC Championship Game (losing badly to the Gators) and then won the Outback Bowl against Michigan to finish with a 10-win season.

Mike DuBose took over as Alabama's coach in 1997 and Bama won its first two games handily. Then came Arkansas and a 17-16 loss to the Razorbacks in Tuscaloosa. Bama spiraled to a 4-7 season. It was another bad year in 1995 (7-5) with a blowout loss to the Razorbacks.

Alabama righted its ship temporarily in 1999 with a 35-28 win en route to DuBose's only decent season, a 10-3 SEC championship year. In his last season, DuBose suffered another loss to Arkansas (28-21) and a 3-8 season.

Dennis Franchione handled Arkansas twice in his 2001 (31-10 win, 7-5 record) and 2002 (30-12 and 10-3) seasons.

Mike Shula had one good year, and it was the one year his team beat Arkansas. Bama lost by 34-31 in two overtimes in the 4-9 2003 season, by 27-10 in the 6-6 2004 season, and by 24-23 in two overtimes in last year's 6-7 season. Only in 2005, when Alabama went 10-2, did a Shula-coached Alabama team defeat the Razorbacks (24-13).

So Alabama has averaged 11 wins in the seasons the Tide defeats Arkansas and Bama has averaged five wins in the years the Razorbacks have won.

Part of it is that when Alabama wins the game, it probably has a better team than when it loses to Arkansas. But the game comes early in the season, and confidence counts in athletics. A win has good carryover, a loss the opposite.

Alabama and Arkansas will kick off shortly after 5:45 p.m. CDT Saturday with television coverage by ESPN.

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