FAYETTEVILLE — By Sept. 5 the Razorbacks will know if Oct. 2 opponent Georgia in Athens, Georgia, rues or rejoices opening the season against a perpetual College Football Playoff fixture.
Georgia’s Kirby Smart coached Bulldogs, the SEC’s perpetually really good but not quite national champion entrant, opens Sept. 4 at neutral site Charlotte, North Carolina, against the Clemson Tigers.
Including winning two national championships, Clemson has qualified from 2015-2020 for every four-team postseason playoff.
It’s a huge game for both, but especially for Georgia trying to get back to the playoff since its 2017 SEC championship team lost to Alabama in the national championship game.
It’s huge but better not to be too big, Georgia quarterback JT Daniels warned Tuesday at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama.
“Obviously it’s a huge game,” Daniels said. “It’s Clemson-Georgia. It’s two really good teams. But I think the biggest thing for us as a team, as much as we get hyped for it, because it’s Georgia-Clemson, it’s a Week One game. You can win Week One, you can beat Clemson by 100 and have a terrible season. You could lose to Clemson by 100 and have a great rest of the season.”
From experience covering the before and after of some huge Arkansas season openers, most notably the 1974 upset in Little Rock over eventual UPI national champion Southern California, and the first college football game of the decade in Arkansas’ 1980 loss to Texas in Austin, a Clemson-Georgia type season-opener can cast season-log effects. In Arkansas’ case neither effect proved positive.
Frank Broyles’ 1974 Razorbacks were smashed back to earth the very next week by Oklahoma State en route to an eventual 6-4-1 season before rebounding in 1975 to go 10-2 and a Southwest Conference championship.
Lou Holtz, coming off 11-1, 8-2-1 and 10-2 for his 1977-79 first three Razorbacks seasons but inexplicably over the top chafed that his Hogs lost the Sugar Bowl to Bear Bryant’s favored, final national championship Alabama team, virtually turned spring practice into “Texas Week.” Worse, he turned preseason two-a-days into “three-a-days” during one of the hottest Arkansas summers on record.
Those preseason highly-picked Hogs struggled to 7-5.
Smart will be challenged to keep the Bulldogs in perspective starting with their second game, Sept. 11, against an Alabama-Birmingham team that went 6-3 last season.
The Bulldogs merit much 2021 preseason love off their 8-2 2020 that included Daniels’ late-season emergence but Florida beat them head to head to claim the 2020 SEC East.
In spite of, or to hear him and Ole Miss Rebels coach Lane Kiffin tell it, because of a nightmare 2020 game against Arkansas, Ole Miss’ Matt Corral commences 2021 among the SEC’s most heralded quarterbacks.
The previous week in the 63-48 shootout during which Ole Miss extended unbeaten national champion Alabama nearly to the last, Corral had completed 21 of 28 passes for 365 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 40 as Ole Miss netted 647 total offensive yards.
The next week against Arkansas, Corral netted an on the surface OK 20 of 38 for 200 yards against Arkansas.
Until you factor in, he was intercepted six times, including two pick-sixes returned for TDs by safety Jalen Catalon and linebacker Grant Morgan in Arkansas’ 33-21 victory at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Despite the picks, Kiffin never pulled his quarterback who responded finishing the Rebels’ 5-5 season completing 231 of 326 passes for 3,337 yards and 29 touchdowns and quarterbacking the SEC’s leading rushing team.
“Coach Kiffin and (offensive coordinator Jeff) Lebby kept me in that game for a reason,” Corral told SEC media Tuesday in Hoover. “They made sure I knew I was the guy. That spoke volumes to me. That spoke volumes to the team. That gave me the confidence in myself that I could bounce back from it. He (Kiffin) said he believed in me. ‘You’re our guy moving forward.’”
Kiffin Tuesday at Hoover said, “I get asked all the time, ‘Why didn’t we pull him?’ I’ve just always believed you’re really slow to do that. You get into pulling the quarterbacks back and forth and their confidence is lost.”
And maybe it takes a setback ultimately to get ahead.
“Sometimes you’ve got to have obstacles,” Kiffin said. “Throw the ball to the other team six times, that’s a pretty good obstacle. I’m glad we stayed with him. He learned a lot from that.”
Arkansas and Ole Miss play their SEC West game Oct. 9 in Oxford, Mississippi.