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Arkansas game could define season

Bryant-Denny Stadium will not be a place for the faint of heart today.

Not every time Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett drops back to pass. Nor every time the Razorbacks’ Jarius White or Michael Smith has the ball in their hands.

Alabama’s third-ranked Crimson Tide hosts Arkansas this afternoon, and the outcome of this rivalry has played an annual uncanny bearing on each team’s season record. Over the last 14 meetings — each team has won seven — the effect has been especially staggering for the Tide.

Maybe it’s the fact that the matchup occurs early on the schedule. Or perhaps Arkansas considers Bama their major rival.

No matter — in the years of an Alabama loss, the Tide has gone on to lose an average of five more games on the season. In the years of a Bama win, the average losses per year drop to three.

Think this game isn’t critical?

Alabama jumped on the Hogs early in last year’s game, and a repeat performance today would be nice — but not likely. That leaves the key to Bama’s chances in the hands of its highly regarded defense.

It should be clear that slowing Mallett down with an effective pass rush is a primary objective. It should also be clear that an even larger task falls squarely on the shoulders of a secondary that has had an ominous propensity to give up the deep ball.

Mallett passed for over 400 yards a week ago, and the numbers 24, 21 and 18 don’t represent the ages of the Arkansas receivers. Those are the average yards per catch for Wright, Greg Childs and Joe Adams.

Alabama will counter with its powerful ground game and deep stable of running backs. Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Roy Upchurch give the Tide a significant advantage, though Upchurch is questionable with an ankle sprain. Still, the Tide must use that advantage to keep the Hog offense on the sidelines.

Tide signal-caller Greg McElroy has been efficient in the passing game and nearly as adept as Mallett in distributing the ball to a bevy of receivers. Eleven different players have gathered in a McElroy pass this year, and Julio Jones returns to the lineup after missing two games with a bruised knee.

If Alabama wants to boost its chances of returning to the SEC title game, the real season starts with Arkansas.

You have to like those chances — Alabama 38-17.

Scoop Rivers, a former sportswriter for the Mobile Press, lives in Selma and is a trust officer with BankTrust.