Twenty two years after leaving the Southwest Conference for the SEC, Arkansas still doesn't have a true conference rival. On paper, it should have been LSU, a perennial conference title contender (like Texas) bordering Arkansas (like Texas) that like Texas once prevented Arkansas from winning a national championship.
Plus, the annual LSU-Arkansas series has had perks Texas-Arkansas never did: a regular spot on national TV during Thanksgiving weekend, the Bellagio of college football trophies in the 200-pound Golden Boot and no in-state rival like Texas A&M to stir Texas fans' deepest passions (well, no Aggies for a while, anyway).
On top of all that, LSU-Arkansas has recently produced games every bit as competitive and entertaining to watch as the great Hog-Longhorn showdowns of the 1960s. And it's likely this Saturday's game in Fayetteville, for which Arkansas is a 1 point favorite according to SportsBettingAcumen.com sites, produces yet another thriller.
[Editor's note: late money has apparently pushed the line toward the LSU side and made Arkansas a slight underdog]
"It's a rivalry game," Arkansas coach Bret Bielema told me. "The boot represents more than just a victory. It's a battle between two states, something our fans take a lot of pride in. Obviously with LSU being the last game of the year there's been a built-up rivalry here that we will hope to continue."
Bielema lauds the rivalry aspect of the game in public, just as previous Arkansas and LSU coaches and players have. It's no secret, though, that the enmity true rivals have for each other has been lacking here.
Take it from Matt Jones, the former Razorback quarterback responsible for the "Miracle on Markham," possibly the series' most memorable moment - a 31-yard Hail Mary pass to DeCori Birmingham with nine seconds left that sent Arkansas to the 2002 SEC Championship Game. The year before, Jones was on the opposite side as Arkansas lost a 41-38 contest sending the Tigers to Atlanta. "You knew it was a big game for whatever reason but there never ever seemed like there was a connection between Arkansas and LSU," he says. "It was almost like it was a little bit forced on you."
Jones says many of his teammates felt the same, as did LSU foes like running back LaBrandon Toefield. After college, Jones and Toefield were NFL teammates in Jacksonville, Fla. "We always joked" about how the series was played up, Jones says. Many LSU players "didn't see it as a rivalry at all," he recalls Toefield saying. "It was something the media put out."
Carter Bryant, an Arkansas native and LSU grad, is part of the media. Now a radio host in El Dorado, Ark., he's covered Tiger football for four years and doesn't understand why the rivalry hasn't caught on more. "It means a good deal to people in south Arkansas and north Louisiana because of proximity," he says.
"But to the people of south Louisiana, it means little compared to other rivalries with trophies. LSU has pushed the Ole Miss rivalry over the years with the Magnolia Bowl trophy. Alabama with [Nick] Saban history has created a fascinating narrative plus instant classics. Every other team in the SEC West outside of Mississippi State is probably viewed as more heavily anticipated and vitriolic matchup in the minds of LSU fans." That includes Texas A&M, which has supplanted Arkansas as the Tigers' season finale. Not coincidentally, annual primetime showdowns with Texas A&M will help generate more profit for the SEC most years than an Arkansas matchup would.
For now, Arkansas fans are as likely to hate Alabama, or Ole Miss, as LSU. Or even an SEC East program. "The team that I hated the most was Tennesee," Jones recalls. Jones, who grew up in Van Buren, points to one experience as the reason. He recalls as a nine-year-old hunting with his father and walking onto a cabin in the woods. Inside, people were watching TV and cheered. On the screen, the unranked Razorbacks were pushing the No. 4 Volunteers to the wire on the road. He'll never forget the euphoria that followed watching Arkansas kicker Todd Wright's 41-yard field goal sail through the uprights with two seconds left to give Arkansas its first victory in Knoxville, Tenn.
Tennessee, though, already had Alabama and Florida as nemeses. Another SEC border state, Mississippi, had two in-state rivals. "Everybody kind of had a rival but us, so we had to manufacture one," former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt says.
Enter David Bazzel, an entrepreneur who has found a niche promoting Arkansas college athletics. Bazzel loves gold, and he loves football, and from all that love sprung the idea for this:
Bazzel's Golden Boot trophy, which depicts the two states' outlines, debuted in 1996. He hoped its record-setting 4-foot plus height would help the game attract national attention and produce better competition. "It's about playing for something, whether it be a paper clip, a rubber band or empty Coke can," he says. In this case, ‘it just so happens to be a 200-pound trophy." He adds: "I wanted it to develop into a fun trophy game, not particularly a rivalry."
Historically, most trophy games, of course, are based in rivalries. But that's changing as power conferences create trophies for series involving program with little shared history. Usually these series involve states that don't share borders, like Nebraska-Wisconsin or South Carolina-Texas A&M, but the situation with Arkansas' next SEC-sanctioned rival is different.
That would be Missouri, which replaces LSU as Arkansas' regular season finale.
Can Missouri become the legit Arkansas rival into which LSU never quite developed?
Many Hog fans believe so. From a geographic standpoint, it makes sense, considering the campuses are about five hours apart - an hour closer than Ole Miss (Oxford) , the second-closest SEC campus to Fayetteville.
"I believe in the next decade or so it will be a good rivalry," Jones says. "Both Arkansas and Mizzou are kind of in the same boat" in terms of overall recent football success. For the hate to really to flourish, though, Missouri must remain near the top of the SEC East and Arkansas must start beating its SEC West foes. He believes that for a true rivalry to flourish beweent two SEC programs, they must both meet in a regular season finale, both should win roughly half the games they play with each other overall, and each program should - at least once every five years - play in the game with an SEC Championship Game appearance on the line.
It's possible if both teams head into that final game with zero or one loss, they would meet again a week later in the SEC Championship Game. That's something LSU and Arkansas can't do now. And it's not inconceivable that if both programs keep building off their current momentum, the game may have College Football Playoff ramifications. Any post-season clash at this level would kick the rivalry authentication process into warp speed.
Mutual success in the early years will ensure a healthy rivalry in the long run even when both programs inevitably wane at some point. Matt Jones likened this dynamic to Ole Miss and Mississippi State, where "if they beat each other and nobody else, that's all that matters. It was never like that with LSU and us."
Two other important factors here: A) As an SEC newcomer, Missouri hasn't yet had time to develop a more hated in-conference rival already as Texas and LSU had and B) The rivalry's basketball side will complement and strengthen the football animosity in ways that never happened with LSU-Arkansas or even Texas-Arkansas.
The fact that Hog basketball coach Mike Anderson and much of his staff left Missouri for Arkansas plays a lot into this, of course. It also helps the states of Missouri and Arkansas are in golden eras in terms of elite basketball recruits per capita, their schools often recruit against each other for the best players and that in vast swaths of northern Arkansas and Missouri, basketball - not football - is the most popular sport. That's not the case in Louisiana and Texas.
Time will tell exactly what form the Missouri-Arkansas rivalry takes, and how deeply it will impress itself on the memories and hearts of today's young Arkansans and Missourians.
In the short term, however, we have a much more concrete image of what the rivalry will look like. Earlier this month, the two colleges announced the game's logo:
In a press release, the University of Arkansas played up the "geographic and historical boundaries" between the states, "from disputed demarcations of the border separating the two states to notable alumni and former personnel with ties to both storied athletic programs. The historic rivalry between the two states will take on even more meaning now, as every Thanksgiving weekend the Battle Line will be drawn on the gridiron. The Razorbacks or Tigers will ultimately stake claim to the "Line" - until the next meeting."
We don't yet know what the "Line" is, exactly, but don't be surprised to see a trophy emerge here. Will it, like the Golden Boot, be clad in the glory of a thousand suns?
But there are some interesting ideas out there. I find it hard not to like the message board favorite "ARMOgedden," but for now the graphic representation of it wallows in alumni association tailgating motif purgatory.
Matt Jones would like to see a kid-friendly trophy emphasizing the mascots. It would represent a giant pot, containing a "Tiger Sooey" witches' brew that would be stirred by some not-yet-defined creature's hand. Perhaps sticking out from the pot would be a tiger paw, or hog's leg. Perhaps a witch looking like a hog-tiger hybrid stirs it. The idea hasn't exactly congealed yet.
David Bazzel has also had a crack at it. His idea is one Carmen Sandiego would love. The logo he designed features the line of latitude which serves as much of Arkansas' northern border. Nationally, the parallel 36°30′ north is best known for marking Missouri Compromise, which in the early 1800s divided prospective free and slave states west of the Mississippi River.
For a few years controversy extending all the way to Washington D.C. entangled the Missouri-Arkansas area near the Mississippi River. The result: Arkansas' weird, jagged northeastern corner. "I think anything's cool if you have a historical context to it," Bazzel says. If his idea had taken, "people would have said ‘What is 36°30'?', and that's where you would have to explain it to them. So it would have included history."
Bazzel says he offered his concept to some people at IMG College, a major collegiate sports marketing company, involved creating the rivalry logo. He isn't sure to what extent, if any, his idea was assimilated into the final rendition. "I don't mind the ‘battle line,'" he says. "It's similar to what I was doing."
When it comes to branding the future of Arkansas and Missouri's rivalry, the past is in.