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Alabama 24, Arkansas 20 — Adding some perspective

In an attempt to put Arkansas’ 24-20 loss to Alabama in perspective, I came up with the following analogy in advance of my Sunday morning appearance with Bill Vickery on Little Rock radio station KABZ-FM, The Buzz:

Picture Bobby Petrino as the head of a theatrical troupe.

When he took his current job, the troupe was in Cedar Rapids doing several shows a week in front of small audiences with an occasional visit to a larger city.

Soon, Petrino had it doing off-Broadway productions in New York.

Quickly, things reached the point that a Broadway production was scheduled. There had been steady progress in the quality of the troupe.

Things went well on opening night for the first few acts. But in the final act, the lead actor flubbed his lines. The production was panned by the theater critic at The New York Times, and the production had a short run.

Seeing how talented Petrino is, there’s no reason to believe he won’t be back on Broadway one of these days.

On opening night, though, his troupe was not quite ready to play on the biggest of stages.

Soon after Saturday’s game had ended, Kane Webb (who is certainly among the four or five best writers in this state) sent me an e-mail. Kane and I are former sportswriters and longtime students of the Arkansas psyche who try to put these sorts of things in perspective. Kane’s missive Saturday night posed this question: “Rate this loss. Was it 1969 bad? 1998 Tennessee bad? Arkansas-Auburn when the Hogs started 4-0 with Matt Jones bad? Or just Florida last year bad?”

Those who say it’s 1969 or even 1998 bad are either young fans or lacking in perspective.

The 1969 Texas game was the final game of the regular season — No. 1 against No. 2. It was a game destined to have entire books written about it.

The 1998 Tennessee game was late in the season, the ninth game for Arkansas. With a win, Arkansas would have been in the hunt for a national championship when it really matters — in November.

For gosh sakes, it’s September. This was only Arkansas’ second Southeastern Conference game. It was Alabama’s SEC opener. It’s early.

Alabama must play Florida this week and South Carolina the following week. There’s also LSU. The regular season ends with the Iron Bowl against Auburn. It’s quite possible that Alabama will lose at least one of those games.

Arkansas must still play Auburn, South Carolina and LSU. A decent performance against Alabama meant that the Razorbacks only dropped from No. 10 to No. 15 with the loss. Let’s say Arkansas takes care of business Oct. 9 at Jerry World against the Aggies of Texas A&M. Let’s say the Hogs then go on the road the following week and defeat Auburn (no easy task). Barring a meltdown or key injuries, the Razorbacks certainly should beat Ole Miss and and Vanderbilt in back-to-back games at Fayetteville on Oct. 23 and Oct. 30.

That would put the Hogs at 7-1 going into their Nov. 6 game at South Carolina and probably back in the Top 10.

Beat South Carolina and you stay in the Top 10. Take out UTEP in Fayetteville and Mississippi State at Starkville. You’re 10-1 and the whole country is watching again as LSU comes to Little Rock on Nov. 27.

Like I said, it’s early.

Lose two of the three games to Auburn, South Carolina and LSU and you’re likely in the Cotton Bowl at 9-3. Lose all three and the Cotton Bowl will probably still take you at 8-4.

Lose only one of those three games and you go to the Capital One Bowl at 10-2.

If you run the table and go 11-1? BCS, here we come.

So let’s all take a deep breath. This is not 1969 against Texas. It’s not even 1998 against Tennessee. It’s more like the Florida game last year.

And while we’re adding perspective, let’s kill that national media angle that Arkansas hasn’t played any meaningful football games in three decades. Just three years ago, the Razorbacks ended the regular season by defeating No. 1 LSU. Yes, I know it had been 31 years since two Top 10 teams had played in Fayetteville. But we’re only four years removed from two Top 10 teams playing in Little Rock. To refresh your memory, LSU beat Arkansas, 31-26, on the afternoon of Nov. 24, 2006. Both teams finished the regular season 10-2. Thirty-one years sounds a lot more dramatic than four years in national media accounts, though.

Yes, there were some big games (and some big wins) in the Houston Nutt era. Let’s not forget that. But here’s what I see as the potential difference between the Nutt era and the Petrino era: The Nutt era was a constant roller coaster. You always knew that a win over Alabama could be followed by a loss to Vanderbilt.

Petrino has the potential (yes, I’m on the Bobby P. bandwagon) of creating a consistent winner at Arkansas. You get the feeling that he can build a program that gets back on Broadway and plays on that big stage a lot more consistently than in the past.

Can Arkansas ever be Saban-era, Alabama good?

I doubt it.

Alabama has more money, more fans and a lot more tradition. Saturday marked Alabama’s 19th consecutive win in an SEC opener, its 18th win in a row and its 28th consecutive regular season win. During the past three seasons, Alabama is 11-2 against teams in the Top 25. It was Alabama’s fourth straight victory over Arkansas and its fifth in the past six games between the two schools.

Arkansas can, however, be good on a more consistent basis than it has been since joining the SEC in 1992. That’s the direction Petrino has his program heading if his defense will continue to improve and if he can ever find a running game.

When I made predictions last week, I wrote: “Alabama should win. Arkansas might. Alabama has superior athletes at most positions. … Alabama knows how to win big games on the road. If these two teams were to play five times, Alabama likely would win four of them. But that one Razorback win could happen Saturday. The fans might storm the field and carry the goal posts over to Dickson Street. We might still be talking about it 20 years from now. Here’s what I think will really happen: Arkansas will play well and hang with Alabama for three quarters. Superior depth will make the difference in the fourth quarter.”

In this case, I hate it that I was right.

Face it. The better team won Saturday. Alabama proved it deserves its No. 1 ranking. It’s not easy to come from 13 points down on the road in the SEC.

All Greg McElroy does is win. He’s now 18-0 as a starting quarterback at Alabama. He was 16-0 his senior season in high school at Southlake Carroll in the Dallas area. That’s 34-0 . McElroy had only four interceptions in 14 games last season. He had two Saturday in the second quarter. But he never lost his composure, running the Bama offense to near perfection in the second half.

Alabama had the ball for 19:04 of the second half. In the fourth quarter, Alabama had the ball for 11:25. That’s what great teams do.

And what about Ryan “Vanilla Ice” Mallett, who threw three interceptions for the first time as a Razorback?

He’s a tremendous talent who made deadly mental mistakes down the stretch. Hopefully, he can learn from those mistakes.

Mallett was 15 of 22 passing for 250 yards and one touchdown in the first half. After Alabama made adjustments, he was 10 of 16 for only 107 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions in the second half.

His physical ability is indeed Heisman worthy. But great quarterbacks make smart decisions when the pressure is on. There’s still work for Petrino to do when it comes to Vanilla Ice.

How good will this Arkansas team be?

I’m thinking 9-3 or perhaps even 10-2 with a break or two at South Carolina or Auburn. Either record will show continued progress in the Petrino era.

One only had to look at the visitors’ sideline at Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Saturday afternoon to see the kind of program he’s trying to build.

Alabama is back under Nick Saban and has been for a couple of years.

Arkansas remains a work in progress.

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