This is always a pivotal game. Last year was even more so for the Alabama Crimson Tide. Following the decisive win over the Razorbacks, Alabama put together a season that returned the program to national prominence and placed them at the top of the heap by defeating the Texas Longhorns in the Pasadena Rose Bowl BCS Championship game.
As for this year, the game was the season SEC opener for the Crimson Tide. The crowd in Bryant-Denny was raucous and raised cane from the opening kickoff to the closing seconds. It was a great confidence boost for the young Alabama quarterback and a statement game for the defense.
For the Crimson Tide, the win unleashed a “scorched earth” campaign through the SEC west that ended with a torching and dismantling of the vaunted University of Florida football program in the SEC championship game.
But for the Arkansas Razorbacks and their quarterback, Ryan Mallett, it was a measuring stick for the team and for his personal growth as a prime time quarterback. In 2009, against the Crimson Tide, neither he nor his team measured up to the “Best in the West.”
The Razorbacks lost the game 35-7.
It was a personal “best of times” for Greg McElroy, “the worst of times” for Ryan Mallett.
Mallett completed only 12 of 35 passes for 160 yards and 1 TD against 1 INT. His counterpart, Greg McElroy was 17-24 for 291 yards and 3 TD against 0 INT.
The Tide was penalized 7 times for 60 yards while the Razorbacks committed 11 penalties for 98 yards.
Mallett and his Hogs went on to finish a respectable 8-5, with an overtime win in the Liberty Bowl against Eastern Carolina. Alabama finished the season undefeated, taking home trophies for victories in the SEC championship and BCS title games.
Both Ryan Mallett and Greg McElroy showed tremendous growth after that first encounter.
At season end McElroy controlled an offense that accumulated 2,409 yards rushing, averaged better that 5.4 yards per carry and scored 27 touchdowns by way of the ground attack. The passing game balanced the great rushing attack and the Alabama quarterback finished with 2,508 yards passing, 17 receiving touchdown against 4 INT yielding a passer rating of 140.5.
Mallett did not just fold up his tent and leave base camp after the loss to Alabama. He finished the climb, and by season end, eclipsed nearly every single season passing record at the University of Arkansas. While doing this, he distinguished himself as the best passing quarterback in the southeastern conference.
The Arkansas Razorback’s rushing attack logged 1,978 yards using six different players in the backfield. The bread and butter of the offense was the passing attack, it was the best in the conference and one of the best in the country.
Mallett led his team, in fact, carried his team by completing 225 of 403 attempts for a whopping 3,624 yards, 30 TD and only 7 INT on the year. He finished with a passer rating of 152.5.
While his rating was not the best in the conference, he was the most feared passer by season end and was considered a potential high draft choice for the NFL. His receiving corps from 2009 remains intact for the 2010 season and is considered the best in the nation.
Mallett returned to the Razorbacks for his final season simply stating, “There are goals we set as a team that we did not achieve last year. I want to leave this program with a championship.”
You see, Ryan Mallett grew up in the shadow of the Arkansas Razorbacks, in Texarkana, TX. He fully intended to be a Razorback following his graduation from high school, but the turmoil of the Houston Nutt tenure compared to the stability and tradition of the Michigan Wolverines under Lloyd Carr lured him away from his childhood passion.
But the Michigan program was turned upside down after his freshman year. The tenure of Lloyd Carr came to and end and the Michigan administration made a decision to hire Rich Rodriquez, without consideration to the personnel left behind by coach Carr.
Mallett was and is a Pro-style quarterback. Rodriquez prefers a dual threat quarterback to lead his offense. At 6’7” the lumbering sophomore read the handwriting on the wall and opted to leave Ann Arbor and return home.
As fate would have it, Houston Nutt left Arkansas under pressure, leaving an opening at the head coaching position that was eventually filled by Bobby Petrino. The scenario couldn’t have worked out any better for Ryan Mallett.
Petrino favors a drop back passer in a spread offense. Mallett is the ideal quarterback to lead Petrino’s high-octane offense.
Ryan Mallett has a deep sense of gratitude for the opportunity to return home and fulfill his childhood dreams. He has an endearing connection and love for the Razorback fan base. He intends to finish with a season to remember for all time.
This year, it is the Crimson Tide that will travel to Reynolds Razorback Stadium set in beautiful backdrop of the Ozark Mountains. But the visitors clad in crimson can’t let their guard down simply due to the serene setting.
The Razorback fans have a nasty streak and they absolutely love their Hogs. They would love nothing more than to send the Red Elephants and their fan base back to Tuscaloosa, “squealing like pigs.”
This anticipated match-up pits the two of the best quarterbacks in the SEC west going head-to-head for the lead in the division. A win in this game puts the respective team in the drivers seat for the division crown and a shot at the coveted SEC title.
Mallett is and has always been the wonder boy, since his early years; a head taller than his peers, muscled and athletic, brash and charismatic. The guy picked first in any sandlot game, for any sport. He gets the most out of his God given ability and inspires others to excel even more.
McElroy is the other guy in the room. The freckle faced red head, unassuming character. On first look a ruddy misfit, geek just hoping to get picked and have the chance to put on a uniform. He was the guy most likely to be the odd man out in an uneven pool of players.
McElroy has used that deceptive appearance to his advantage. And he is smart as a whip, applying for a Rhodes Scholarship to finish his educational career. Not to complete his education, to advance it to a Masters Degree.
He has set himself apart by his ability to learn and comprehend; then apply what he learns into action on the field of play. McElroy's demeanor hides his burning desire to win; his drive motivates him to get every inch out of every play.
He is the guy who knows how to make lemonade from lemons and sell it for a profit. Greg McElroy grew up in the shadows of Texas Stadium. His father oversees sales and marketing for the Dallas Cowboys franchise and has given his son the vision of what it takes to be successful, on and off the field.
On September 25th, 2010, one day short of a year from the last meeting, McElroy and Mallett will once again lead their teams in a pivotal gridiron contest. The winner of this game will put his team in the leadership role for the SEC west division title.
They are both tough athletes, one is a little bigger and a little tougher. They are both very smart, one is quite a bit smarter on and off the field. Neither has a true competitive advantage over the other. The winner will be the one who best manages the power that surrounds them in the form of play makers.
And which one gets the most support from the defensive unit on their respective teams. The coaches may make decisions that could affect the outcome of the game, but what makes the real difference is execution of the play. That starts with the quarterback.
As individuals and team leaders in this young 2010 season, both men have shown the ability to lead with authority and conviction. But only one team will leave the venue as winner on Saturday night.
McElroy is the steady hand controlling a powerful rushing and passing attack that has thus far annihilated three teams unprepared for their match-up against the juggernaut, Crimson Tide.
Thus far, Alabama is 3-0, outscoring the opposition 134-19. They have yet to play a team that can match-up, player for player on both sides of the ball. That team may not exist, but the Arkansas Razorbacks come as close as any team will in 2010 to achieving that comparison during the regular season.
McElroy has 43 completions on 60 attempts for 705 yards and 6 TD. He has thrown one interception in the first three games. His passer rating leads the SEC at 200.0, averaging 235.0 yards per game.
His backfield has netted 752 yards rushing, scoring nine touchdowns on 110 rushing attempts. The Alabama offense is averaging 250.7 yards rushing, 542 yards of offense per game. The best running back tandem in the country lines up behind Greg McElroy, none is better.
Ryan Mallet is the heart and soul of the Razorback Team. He is not a replaceable component of the offense and he must bring his best career effort into this game. His team is also 3-0.
Mallett has thrown exactly 100 passes. He has 70 completions for 1081 yards and 9 TD. He has thrown two interceptions on the season. His efforts have yielded 367.3 yards per game, setting his passer rating at 186.5 after the first three games.
The Razorback running backs have rushed for only 348 yards on the year, averaging 116 yards per game. It is an area that must improve against the Crimson Tide if they expect to win. They have scored seven rushing touchdowns and are averaging 4.2 yards per carry.
The rushing leader for the Razorbacks is Broderick Green. He has 56 carries for 199 yards and one touchdown. Dennis Johnson, was injured in the second game of the season, falling on the point of the football and lacerating his bowel during a kickoff return. It was a freak injury and leaves a large void in the rushing game.
Against Georgia, sophomore tailback Ronnie Wingo picked up his production and is expected to take over the role for Johnson in his absence. Along with Green and fellow sophomore RB Knile Davis, the Razorbacks are capable of big games, they have yet to translate that potential into production during game time. Ryan Mallett needs their support, the kind of support afforded to his counterpart, Greg McElroy.
Mallett’s resume now harbors a fourth quarter, last minute, come-from-behind victory, on the road, against the Georgia Bulldogs. It was a great victory in a hard fought game in a hostile stadium. It was his first road victory in the SEC. It is the kind of victory that can develop the confidence in a team that allows them to collectively improve their play on every down.
Both quarterbacks and their respective offenses will be presented with the best defensive challenge of the season thus far. For Ryan Mallett, it will likely be the best defense he will face the entire season.
This game is just be a test of wills and imposing that will on the opposition. It is an opportunity to display uncanny leadership, the leadership of a champion. That type of leadership can only come from the quarterback. There is only one victor at the end of the day.
Once again, the Arkansas Razorbacks and Alabama Crimson Tide meet at a crossroads.
McElroy has a proven track record of elevating his level of play and the play of his teammates to match the level of the competition. It afforded him and his teammates the opportunity to hoist the crystal Coach’s Trophy. The challenge to McElroy is to do it once again.
Ryan Mallett and his team must rise to the occasion if they expect to compete for a championship; a championship of any kind. It is what they promised. It is their full intention to deliver. It’s time to see if he has what it takes to be a champion in this league.
For now there are just questions and considerations of all that will come together for this encounter. There is a reason why coaches are nervous before games, even the best in the ranks.
Four hours after kickoff, maybe just a little shy of four hours, the answer will be known. One man will ask what happened, the other will move on toward the goal of completing a championship run. It should be an encounter of the legendary kind; a clash of Titans