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WPS, sort of, for now

by Philip Martin | September 13, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

On Friday, on the radio, I said it was a shame we have to play the games.

That's because anticipation often is better than realization. Because we can imagine anything in the moments before kickoff, while every tick of the game clock forecloses possibility. Before a game is played, every sports fan can imagine a way by which their team could prevail. It's only when the hitting starts that reality intrudes and hearts begin to break.

We like to believe that there is something mystical about athletic performance, but experience teaches us that physics is more often determinative of the outcome than desire.

I thought the Razorbacks had a chance.

Not a great chance, but enough of a chance that, were I a gambler, I might have put a meaningful amount on the Texas game when the line was Arkansas plus 7.5 points. (By game time, it was down to six points, and I wouldn't have touched that.) I thought the Razorbacks would probably beat the spread but lose the game, and that would be sufficient to encourage people who care about the fortunes of the UA program. It would be "a moral victory."

Then Arkansas up and rolled the University of Texas. Nothing moral about it.

And, in part because of all of the pregame enthusiasm, it felt preordained. In retrospect, it's easy to see how Texas was set up for failure.

They came into Fayetteville ranked 21st in the country (meaningless this early in the season, but generally indicative of the level of unearned respect heritage programs receive), a new head coach and a redshirt freshman quarterback making his second career start. Being Texas, they probably expected to win handily.

While I doubt most Texas fans still consider the Razorbacks, their once and future conference mates, a genuine rival, Arkansas was lying in wait with a Bowie knife between its teeth, acutely aware of the history between the programs and the assumption of Longhorn superiority.

Texas' incipient move to the Southeastern Conference--which isn't supposed to happen until 2025, though the smart money says it will probably happen earlier--was another compounding factor. While Arkansas hasn't fared well these past few years, at least the team is playing in the college football big leagues. And though they went 3-7 against SEC teams last year, it's not as though they weren't competitive. Three of those losses came by three points or less.

So Saturday's game was a "welcome to the SEC" moment for Texas. Arkansas' offensive line pushed their defense around; Arkansas' defensive line got into their backfield 11 times. It really wasn't as close as the final score (40-21) suggests; Arkansas was demonstrably a better football team than Texas.

So I was wrong. That doesn't surprise me. Like most people, I know very little about football and next to nothing about college football. I know what I read in the newspapers and what gets said on some podcasts--what "Stanford Steve" Coughlin thinks about some things--but my experience is limited to having been an underutilized split end on an undefeated junior high team and a decent intramural flag football quarterback.

I know enough to know football is hard to know. There's a reason football coaches spend nights sleeping in their offices; their game is complex, unforgiving and as parsable a contest as chess.

Most of the time in sports, the contest goes to the bigger, stronger and faster competitor. But football is different; it is a team game where the precise execution of a thoughtful game plan can neutralize an opponent's physical advantages.

In most sports, the higher the level, the less coaching matters. A great manager might mean a few more wins over the course of a 162-game season to a mediocre baseball team; a great basketball coach can compensate somewhat for a deficit of talent, but a great football coach can, as Bum Phillips said of Bear Bryant, "take his'n and beat your'n, and then he can turn around and take your'n and beat his'n."

It's the fundamental strategic nature of football that allows this--every player on the football field has, on every play, a specific role and assignment far more complicated than the roles and assignments in baseball.

A baseball player reacts, ideally in a fundamentally sound way, to the unique dynamic situation that confronts him. Basketball can (and often is) played instinctively, without any set plays or defensive imperatives beyond harassing the ball.

But a football player does (or fails to do) what his coaches have instructed him to do, in coordination with 10 other teammates who've received similar orders. It's not for nothing that the most important player on the field--the quarterback--is essentially a coach surrogate on the field.

So it's not clear that Arkansas actually had better players than Texas; according to the rankings compiled by 247Sports Composite, Texas had the eighth best recruiting class in the country in 2020, while Arkansas came in at No. 29; in 2019 they were ranked 3rd and 29th, respectively; in 2018 3rd and 45th. Maybe Arkansas players were bigger, stronger and faster than Texas' players, but I doubt it.

Does this mean that Arkansas has turned a corner? Maybe. It's a good victory. But I don't think it means that Arkansas is about to take its place among the best teams in college football. Despite their national ranking, Texas wasn't all that, and the Hogs looked shaky against Rice. And the SEC is the nation's toughest conference. If they can improve on last year's conference record, it should be taken as progress.

And progress is what we should want, because it breeds hope and hope is what educes joy.

Some people think of sports as a zero sum game, in which one team's gain is exactly balanced by the other's loss. But in real life, there's rarely a bright line between winners and losers, and there are plenty of benefits to having played and lost.

I don't get my heart broken by sports teams, but understand why people invest so much in things that ultimately mean nothing. We need to distract ourselves from a real world upon which we can have only the smallest effect. We need to be interested, to have a reservoir of common images and associations to employ in conversation. How 'bout dem Hawgs?

They're 2-0. They're perfect. They're a bunch of 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds subject to all the temptations and weaknesses young men are subject to. They likely won't go undefeated, and they'll probably break your heart.

But they'll give us a reason to look forward to Saturday.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at [email protected] and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

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