My initial reaction was curiosity, and then extreme excitement. When the Arkansas Razorbacks announced that they had reached an agreement with Rutgers for a home-and-home set of games, I could not quite understand why the Hogs would acquiesce to giving up a home game in 2013 in order to travel to Piscataway, NJ for a game against the Scarlet Knights. I quickly got over it, however, when I had the fantastic idea to turn the game into an excuse for a long weekend in Manhattan with a little football on the side.
Yes, I have been excited about the 2013 road trip to Jersey since the games were announced this spring. I never imagined, however, that the 2012 home game against the Big East member would carry such importance. And yet it has.
The Rutgers game has suddenly become a huge game. HUGE.
I'm a big fan of hyperbole, but I will stop short of proclaiming it the biggest game in 5,10, 20, or 50 years, although I have heard all of those proclamations and many others since Saturday. It may very well turn out to be the biggest game of the NEXT five years, however. Pray it doesn't become the biggest of the next 10, 20, or beyond.
Why is it so important? Glad you asked. Let's delve.
1. Winning feels good. Pretty simple concept, huh? And yet, the Hogs have had very little opportunity to celebrate since fall camp began, save a lackluster home opener against overmatched Jacksonville State and a trip from the Razorback Marching Band down to the intramural fields to pep the team up. The fact of the matter is that the sputtering start to the season in which the Razorbacks comfortably defeated Jacksonville State felt very little like a victory, but what would you as a fan give to feel that slight post-game uneasiness as opposed to the disbelief following Louisiana-Monroe or the numbness after Alabama? With this Saturday comes an opportunity to notch a victory against a good team that is coming in undefeated and confident. It presents an opportunity for the Hogs to flip the script of the first three weeks and leave Razorback Stadium feeling good for a change. The importance of that emotion CANNOT BE OVERSTATED.
2. Fan support must be salvaged. I know that players cannot enjoy looking up in the stands in the 3rd quarter and seeing that fully half of the fans that were there for kickoff have already left. Conversely, I can attest that fans are not crazy about pledging and spending their money over the spring and summer only to be unable to digest what they purchased the right to watch during the fall. The players want the fans to cheer, the fans oh so desperately want something to cheer, and Rutgers is the first for both to get back on the horse after a couple of excruciatingly tough weeks.
3. The world, most likely including the next head coach, is watching. Who can look away from a proper train wreck? Somebody a lot stronger than I. Pointing fingers and assigning blame is futile at this point. The only thing that can end the desperation is to change the narrative of the media and fans. The only means of accomplishing this is getting off the schneid and preventing radio hosts and columnists from devoting words and inches to wondering just when, exactly, the Hogs will get off the schneid.
4. Getting bowl eligible. This one is really big. There are nine games left, and the Razorbacks must win at least five of them in order to finish 6-6 and qualify for a bowl game. Since the jury is still out on the true ability of this season's Razorback team, this game has the potential to become huge. If the Razorbacks are indeed a 6-6 type team instead of an 8-4 or 9-3 type team, then finding that sixth win could be nightmarish, and Rutgers and Auburn would both look to present an obstacle. With a new coach hopefully in place before bowl season gets into swing, a postseason appearance would be worth its weight in gold by guaranteeing maximum practice time with the new coach.
5. The revenue stream CANNOT dry up. Right now, all financial woes facing the Razorbacks due to a lackluster 2012 football season are strictly potential losses. Yes, tickets may be selling for roughly the same as a venti latte from Starbucks, but keep in mind that we're talking about the secondary market. The actual losses of the athletic department are minimal right now, and the football team has a chance to keep it that way if they can find a way to get back into the good graces of the fan base, and, consequently, their wallets. Lose this game and allow the season to unravel and true fan apathy to set in, and suddenly the prospects of paying for a $30 million football operations center that ground has already been broken on become awfully daunting indeed. More than that, the purchase power Jeff Long has for the next head coach could be affected negatively, and that is something that absolutely cannot happen under any circumstance.
The most important reason that a win against Rutgers is critical, however, is simply that it is the next game. As Tyler Wilson said in his comments following the Alabama game, you have to win the next one to win the rest of them. If the Hogs had remembered that a couple of weeks ago, things might not appear so dim. Overlooking Rutgers doesn't seem to be much of a possibility considering the way the season has gone thus far, but the nose-to-the-grindstone mentality that typically accompanies that "one game at a time" attitude is something that the Razorbacks may have to discover for the first time.
Trent Wooldridge will be that guy with enough bourbon. He loves the S-E-C chant and honks because he hates Texas. He puts honey on his pizza, demands aisle seats, and sees quitting golf as more of a hobby than actually playing golf. Follow @twooldridge and track his quest to transform his two-year-old into a southpaw ace in the bigs.