FAYETTEVILLE — Six months of anticipation for Arkansas-Alabama disappeared in an instant last Saturday, when Louisiana-Monroe quarterback Kolton Browning sprinted to the corner of the end zone to score the game-winning touchdown.
It wiped out the luster surrounding a tantalizing matchup between top 10 teams in Razorback Stadium. Arkansas’ lofty goal of winning a national championship all but vanished as well. And if losing to ULM wasn’t enough of a punch to the gut, the Warhawks also knocked quarterback Tyler Wilson out of the game with a head injury that should keep the Razorbacks’ leader off the field against Alabama.
So it’s understandable to Arkansas tight end Chris Gragg if there aren’t many holding much faith in the Razorbacks (1-1) as they take on the top-ranked Crimson Tide (2-0) at 2:30 p.m.
“We could be playing with a backup quarterback,” Gragg said early in the week. “We have tons of injuries. We lost to an unranked Division I team and now we’re playing the No. 1 team in the nation. The underdog storyline is there.”
But Gragg also saw something else in preparing for Alabama, too.
It’s an opportunity to prove Arkansas still deserves to be in the conversation with the nation’s best.
“We still feel like we’re a top 10 team,” Gragg said. “We have one blemish on our record, but we’re 0-0 in the SEC and we know that this is a big game. Like it always is every year I’ve been here, it has a lot of implications on what happens in the SEC.”
Arkansas, even with Wilson expected to be sidelined, is saying all the right things this week. The Razorbacks believe they can thrive in the underdog role, get their season back on track and take a big step toward competing for the SEC West championship by snapping a five-game losing streak against the Crimson Tide.
How is it even possible? Center Travis Swanson said last week’s loss was an important reality check, one which has only made the Razorbacks more dangerous this week.
“When it first happened it was a big shock to everyone,” Swanson said. “You’ve got to kind of get knocked down sometimes before you get woken up. We’ve woken up.”
But waking up is one thing. Knocking off Alabama is another. It’s no easy task, considering Arkansas carries plenty of noteworthy flaws into today’s game. They’re the kind of weaknesses usually exploited by Nick Saban’s Alabama teams.
The defense didn’t have any success stopping ULM when it mattered in the second half last week and struggled early against Jacksonville State in the opener. The Arkansas run game hasn’t impressed through two weeks and the entire offense was shaky, at best, after Wilson exited the game late in the first half last Saturday.
CBS analyst Gary Danielson, who will be part of the broadcast team for today’s game, also said Arkansas’ inability to protect its quarterback doesn’t bode well. But Danielson said Arkansas should have one thing going for it today.
“(Alabama) should get Arkansas’ best shot,” Danielson said. “They should be a desperate team. They should be playing for almost their whole season here. And if they’re going to play a great game, this should be the one they play.”
Former Razorback Barry Switzer, who won three national championships as a coach at Oklahoma and a Super Bowl with the Dallas Cowboys, said that is the dangerous element in the Razorbacks. He believes there is hope for the Hogs because the ULM loss will make Arkansas “reach down a little bit deeper because of what happened.”
“Football teams are resilient,” Switzer said. “They’re young people. They come back. I’m not sure it won’t make them better. It’s hard to believe that. But psychologically, I think it’s maybe a plus for Arkansas for the kids going into the Alabama game. They’re not going to be any way favored to win or given a chance.”
But the road is obviously much tougher on the Razorbacks without Wilson.
The quarterback did not participate in Thursday’s practice and coach John L. Smith offered little explanation for his absence other than the fact the senior “was busy.” Smith indicated Arkansas would make a decision on Wilson’s availability by Friday. He then said in a statement Friday morning that Wilson would be a “game-time decision.”
Multiple reports indicated Wilson had not been cleared to play and won’t be available today. So Arkansas will turn to backups Brandon Allen or Brandon Mitchell as it tries to grab the program’s fifth win against No. 1 ranked teams.
Arkansas said it will be confident on offense under any quarterback.
“It’s the system I’m confident in,” said Arkansas running back Knile Davis, who will play a key role without Wilson. “It’s what we do. They know the system. They can step in and do it.”
It would be a monumental moment for the Razorbacks if it happens.
Arkansas hasn’t beaten Alabama since Saban became the program’s coach in 2007.
The Crimson Tide also is 50-6 under the coach since 2008, winning two national titles (and four games against Arkansas) in that span. That’s why the Razorbacks viewed the Alabama game as a pivotal moment for the program in the offseason, beginning its preparation for the SEC opener as far back as last spring.
The ULM loss — and the handful of injuries to players like Wilson, cornerback Tevin Mitchel and fullback Kiero Small — has cast plenty of doubt about whether Arkansas is capable of breaking their Alabama losing streak today. But the Razorbacks still insist there’s an opportunity waiting them and they plan to make the most of it.
“It’s what it is,” Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers said. “They’re No. 1, and this is our first SEC game, and there’s something that we’ve got to prove: That we’re a good football team and we’re still championship contenders.”