BY MIKE URSERY
SEC Media Days took place earlier this month in Hoover, Alabama, and one of the storylines from that week involved both Arkansas and Missouri.
The storyline I’m referring to is about the Battle Line Rivalry, the rivalry that “began” when the two teams became permanent cross-division rivals beginning with the 2014 season.
The Razorbacks and the Tigers are expected to be “rivals.” The expectation for it is so high that a rivalry has been manufactured, dubbed the “Battle Line Rivalry.” The game is scheduled to be played the day after Thanksgiving and is nationally televised. This season, the two teams are scheduled to play on Nov. 24 in Fayetteville.
On the one hand, Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema discussed a possibility of arranging a a high school football “all-star” game between Arkansas and Missouri to “help fuel the rivalry” a little bit.
On the other side, Missouri linebacker Eric Beisel stoked the flames he lit last November before the Tigers’ 28-24 comeback win over Arkansas. During his press conference at SEC Media Days, Beisel said he “poked a cute little kitten.” Bless his heart.
The Razorbacks’ second half meltdown last November in Columbia, along with Beisel trying to reopen that wound seems like it should ruffle some feathers. Except, there’s just one problem. The feathers of Arkansas fans really aren’t ruffled by those words.
I grew up in Arkansas. I’m a Razorback fan. I was raised a Razorback fan. I’m raising my kid to be a Razorback fan. It’s embedded in my DNA.
While that blown lead against Missouri last season was upsetting, it was just another part of a trend that defined Arkansas football last season. The Razorbacks built leads in the first half of games, then fell behind late in the second half. The Tigers weren’t the only team to beat the Razorbacks that way.
Were Beisel’s words about Arkansas annoying? Sure. Do his words get under my skin and make we wish Nov. 24 would hurry up and get here? Absolutely not. Do I even consider Missouri to be a rivalry game? Nope. Why should I? That loss hurt, but a loss to Missouri hurts just as much as a loss to anyone else not named LSU or Texas.
Speaking of LSU, that team is considered by Razorback fans to be the team’s biggest rival. Before the SEC tried to force this Battle Line Rivalry on all of us three years ago, Arkansas played LSU the day after Thanksgiving. The game is still called the “Battle of the Boot,” with the teams playing for the Golden Boot Trophy, representing the geographical shape of Arkansas and Louisiana.
The two teams are both in the SEC West, so they still play each other. However, the game doesn’t have the same feel now that it’s no longer played on Black Friday. For the past three seasons, it’s felt like another game played on Saturday night.
Older generations of Razorback fans still feel a bitter hatred towards the Texas Longhorns. Arkansas and Texas were once Southwest Conference rivals. Texas A&M and Arkansas play each other every year in the Southwest Classic at Cowboys Stadium. These two teams also share a history, given that they both were in the Southwest Conference before Arkansas went to the SEC in 1992.
I say that older generations feel a certain bitterness towards Texas because Arkansas and Texas rarely play against each other anymore. Younger generations of Arkansas fans haven’t experienced what it’s like in the days leading up to a football game against the Longhorns.
In the future, the same will be said about the Border War. Missouri and Kansas had a rivalry that was the oldest on this side of the Mississippi before the Tigers moved to the SEC. The two teams haven’t played against each other in any sport since Missouri left the Big XII Conference.
Despite not having played KU over the last half-decade, Missouri fans I’ve spoken with still consider the Jayhawks their biggest rival.
In turn, I’ve spoken with some Arkansas fans who don’t consider Missouri to be a rival in any kind of way. One of them even produced a list of who they consider the Razorbacks’ rivals, and the Tigers were near the bottom.
In 2015, a Rock M Nation poll showed that Tiger fans thought of Georgia as their biggest rival not named Kansas. Sheldon Richardson might have played a role in that, when he said that Georgia and the rest of the SEC play a style of “old man football.” Georgia won that game 41-20, then Missouri returned the favor in Athens the following year, beating the Bulldogs 41-26 when the teams met “between the hedges.”
Now, this doesn’t mean that Arkansas and Missouri never will become a rivalry. Geographically, a Missouri-Arkansas rivalry makes sense, and has the potential to eventually catch fire. Columbia and Fayetteville are less than five hours apart.
It’s going to take more than proximity and a trophy to make the Battle Line Rivalry become something special. The Battle Line Trophy is only one of three that the Razorbacks play for each year. The other two are the Boot Trophy and the Southwest Classic Trophy.
Beisel tried to stir the pot last November by making comments about Arkansas. The Tigers came from behind to win 28-24, giving Beisel an opportunity to make more comments at SEC Media Days.
Arkansas players who attended simply said that their goal for this season is to learn to close out the fourth quarter. None of them made any comments about Beisel or the Missouri game in particular. Giving up leads in the fourth quarter was a common theme near the end of last season.
With Missouri predicted to finish dead last in the SEC, and Arkansas expected to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack, don’t expect this game to amount to much in 2017. Beisel surely will try to pour gasoline on the fire he lit last season. If Arkansas dominates Missouri in Fayetteville like they did in 2015, it’s going to cause a delay in this rivalry gaining any traction.
Besides, when the calendar turns to Nov. 24, Missouri fans may be looking forward to basketball season. Football could just be something to get them through the fall, looking at the expectation given to Mizzou this season.
As an Arkansas fan, I’m not looking forward to the game against Missouri. I’m not excited for it, nor do I dread it. It’s just another conference game.
As of now, this “rivalry” only looks like an attempt by two universities and the SEC to try and build a brand that will potentially bring in more money.
BY MIKE URSERY