FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – When Ryan Mallett left the winningest program in college football history and decided to head home, he could only hope for the opportunity he's about to get.
Back in his home state of Arkansas, Mallett will lead the 10th-ranked Razorbacks (3-0) in the biggest game in their home stadium in more than three decades when No. 1 Alabama (3-0) rolls into town Saturday. It's a chance for Mallett to launch his Heisman Trophy campaign in earnest and establish Arkansas as a true contender in the SEC for the first time since Bobby Petrino took over as coach.
The buzz is enormous for the first meeting of top 10 teams in Fayetteville since 1979, but Mallett insists he's not wrapped up in what a victory could mean for his Heisman chances and beyond.
"I came to the University of Arkansas to win football games, and so that's how I look at it," Mallett said. "I want to win this for the state and for the rest of my team, and that's the way the rest of the team looks at it.
"We love playing in front of these fans. They're the best fans in the nation and when we get the chance to go out and put on a show, we don't want to disappoint."
Mallett has been building toward this day since he followed the Razorbacks as a child in Texarkana. He ended up going to Michigan instead, but left after one season splitting time with Chad Henne and signed on to quarterback Petrino's intriguing offense instead. After setting school records with 3,624 yards and 30 touchdowns last season, with only seven interceptions, he's now leading the country with 360.3 yards passing per game.
He took the next step toward elevating Arkansas' program last week with a last-minute scoring drive to beat Georgia 31-24 and earn his first SEC road win in five tries. His first away game with the Razorbacks was a 35-7 loss at Alabama last season in which he was held to a season-low 160 yards and completed just 12 of 35 passes.
"I don't think we went into the game believing we could win," Mallett said. "We've always had confidence but that game, I just don't think we went in there with the mindset that we were going to win the game."
Now, the stakes are so much higher. Alabama truly begins its national title defense with a string of three straight games against some of the SEC's best. After Arkansas, the Tide return home next week to host No. 9 Florida, then head to No. 12 South Carolina on Oct. 9.
"I think our team will find that you really are only as strong as your weakest link, and I think everyone has got to fight a better fight against better competition," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "I think that's the challenge for everyone in terms of doing their job."
Saban has won his last seven games against Top 25 competition, including four in a row against the top 10. But never during their run to the championship last season did the Crimson Tide face such a highly ranked foe in the opponent's home stadium.
"I can only imagine. I'm sure it's going to be rocking," Mallett said. "It's going to be loud and it's going to be crazy. I can't wait to see it and experience just the atmosphere of the game before the game. Once the game starts, for us on the sideline it'll be normal, but hopefully the crowd keeps it going."
Mallett can go a long way toward making the crowd rowdier if he can find a way to solve a defense that gave him fits last year. Even with just two returning starters, and star defensive end Marcell Dareus missing two games due to an NCAA suspension, Alabama has allowed only 19 points this season in its stingiest three-game start since 1979.
Mark Ingram, last year's Heisman Trophy winner, returned after missing the Tide's first two games with an injury and amassed 151 yards on only nine carries last week in a rout at Duke. And he knows Mallett could be in position to dethrone him if he can guide the Razorbacks to victories this season.
"He's a great player and he's had great success so far this year. I'm sure people are going to be evaluating his performance against a good defense that we have," Ingram said. "That's just part of the game. ... Big players love big games, so I'm sure he's thriving on this game as well."