FAYETTEVILLE -- The Arkansas Razorbacks are a team in need of a heated rival.
The Razorbacks have three trophy games -- against Texas A&M, LSU and Missouri -- and lots of other rivals in the SEC, but they do not have a standout foe in which both fan bases can't wait to hate, 365 days a year.
Returning to contention in the SEC will help in that regard, fans and college football analysts alike agree.
In the meantime, tonight's Battle for the Golden Boot against No. 7 LSU has to serve as the circled game for the struggling Razorbacks.
The Tigers (7-2, 4-2 SEC) will try to extend their winning streak over Arkansas (2-7, 0-5) to three in a row in the 6:30 p.m. game at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Arkansas, under first-year Coach Chad Morris, is looking for its first victory over a Power 5 opponent since Oct. 28, 2017.
LSU is easily the top SEC rival for Arkansas based on an online poll conducted by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette over four-and-a-half days, starting last Saturday. The Twitter poll, which counted 4,235 ballots, showed LSU is the top rival for 66 percent of respondents identifying as Arkansas football fans. Ole Miss was a distant second at 17 percent, with Texas A&M in third (11 percent) and Missouri last at 6 percent. There were no other voting options.
There is not a corresponding poll for LSU to cite, but the Tigers are coming off a 29-0 loss to their most-hated rival, Alabama. Rivalries against annual opponents Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Florida and Auburn could be argued as carrying more weight for LSU fans than the yearly game against the Razorbacks.
Morris said he sensed LSU was the top opponent for the Razorbacks as he traveled to Razorback Club meetings and other speaking engagements last winter and spring after leaving his head coaching gig at SMU.
"No question that this game stood out," Morris said. "In my traveling circuit that I went through, this was a big talking point, this game. So you got a sense real quick that this was a big rival game. You knew that. I knew that coming in."
Perhaps the signature moment of the Bret Bielema era that preceded Morris was a 2014 upset of the No. 17 Tigers on a cold, drizzly night at Razorback Stadium. That 17-0 victory snapped a 17-game SEC losing streak for the Razorbacks and led to a field rushing by success-starved fans, and the accompanying fine levied by the SEC.
Ex-Razorback David Bazzel, the Little Rock-based entrepreneur who created the Golden Boot, gave a motivational talk to the Hogs before that game, encouraging them to run across the field to retrieve the 175-pound trophy if they won it.
The Razorbacks obliged. The images of that scene made a lasting impression.
"My freshman year we stormed the field," said Arkansas senior receiver Jared Cornelius, a Shreveport native who scored a 69-yard rushing touchdown to seal the Razorbacks' 31-14 upset of LSU the next year at Tiger Stadium. "It means the world. I'd by lying to you if I said I didn't check this game off the calendar every year, being a Louisiana guy ... and having to go back in December."
Senior linebacker Dre Greenlaw, who had a strip-sack that led to an early touchdown in the 2015 game at LSU, said the Tigers are definitely his top rival.
"In my eyes, when I hear LSU, it's time to rock and roll, so it's going to be a fight," Greenlaw said.
Arkansas linebacker De'Jon Harris, a south Louisiana native, said there isn't a bigger game on the schedule for him.
"I know the majority of the team," he said. "It's going to mean a lot. We want to win and go back home and brag. Win the trophy and bring it back for this program, too."
LSU Coach Ed Orgeron, who worked on the strength and conditioning staff and as an on-field graduate assistant at Arkansas for two seasons under Ken Hatfield from 1986-87, knows how the Razorbacks feel about LSU. His wife Kelly is from Lake City, in northeastern Arkansas.
"I coached at Arkansas for two years, my wife's from Arkansas, so I hear it all the time," Orgeron said. "I know it. I let [LSU players] know that. I think the kids know it.
"Having been up there, it's a very tough atmosphere. Several years back, Arkansas had beaten LSU for a couple of years in a row. We know we're going to get their best shot."
LSU's top receiver Justin Jefferson said the Tigers try to make every game feel like a rivalry.
"Especially coming off a loss like we had, just trying to bounce back, make sure everybody's having their heads high," Jefferson said. "Playing a team where there's a trophy involved, we want to keep that trophy. Just trying to beat them every year to keep that trophy is something that means something to us."
LSU looked sluggish in losses to Arkansas in 2014 and '15, but the Tigers have had a different vibe the past two seasons under Orgeron in this series. Their 38-10 victory at Razorback Stadium in 2016 was about the worst beating Arkansas took that season.
"They're going to come here hungry," Arkansas guard Johnny Gibson said. "They just got beat and they've got a trophy, and we want the trophy and they are going to come in here and give it their best and we're going to give our best."
Geography, history and time have all conspired to make finding an archival difficult for the Hogs since they left the Southwest Conference in 1991.
Fans in eastern Arkansas can point to Ole Miss and the long-running series against the Rebels as a top rival. Fans in southern and southwestern Arkansas naturally get revved up more for LSU.
Fans of a certain age will argue Texas is and will always be Arkansas' top rival. In fact, several respondents to the Democrat-Gazette's Twitter poll made that clear in posts.
The closest thing the Hogs have had to a burning cauldron of arch rivalry was a Thanksgiving weekend stretch against LSU from the Hogs' first year in the SEC in 1992 through 2013, which ended soon after Texas A&M and Missouri entered the league in 2012.
Along the way, the season-ending series spawned two of the greatest finishes in Hogs' history, dubbed the Miracle on Markham I and II.
The first in 2002, on Matt Jones' 31-yard touchdown pass to DeCori Birmingham with nine seconds remaining, gave Arkansas a 21-20 victory that clinched the Hogs' second berth in the SEC Championship Game.
The second, in 2008, came on backup quarterback Casey Dick's 24-yard touchdown pass to London Crawford with 22 seconds remaining for a 31-30 victory in Bobby Petrino's first season at the Arkansas helm.
That win touched off a hotly competitive four-year span, with the teams trading home victories. Arkansas clinched its only BCS bowl berth with a 31-23 victory in the 2010 game in Little Rock, highlighted by Cobi Hamilton's 80-yard catch-and-run touchdown from Ryan Mallett on the last play of the first half.
The next year, Petrino gave an unsportsmanlike showing at the end of No. 1 LSU's 41-17 victory over the No. 3 Razorbacks in a game that had national championship implications.
The Razorbacks didn't win in the series again until the shutout of 2014.
That victory came in the first year after the Thanksgiving weekend game against LSU was snatched away from the Razorbacks, with the Tigers preferring a new season-ender against Texas A&M.
The Razorbacks were left to shuffle off to start a fresh season-ending series against border rival Missouri, a team Arkansas had played just five times before the Tigers joined the SEC in 2012.
Arkansas' lack of an agreed-upon archival has worsened with the Hogs languishing with a 13-40 SEC record since the 1 vs. 3 showdown in Baton Rouge.
"It's weird, because they're not in the conference they were in for however many decades, and they've been in the SEC for a long time now," ESPN senior writer Ryan McGee said this week at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club. "I would say for Arkansas fans, it's kind of the LSU model of what's the most important series coming up? If you're good enough to become worthy enough to be Alabama's rival, well then you'll take that job. Because LSU just has it right now.
"But they've lost to them for almost a decade now. The way that became a rivalry -- because it wasn't for 50 years -- LSU started winning the games. When that back and forth happened, in the late 90s through the middle of the 2000s, that's when that became a rivalry. I would say to Arkansas fans, start beating up on somebody that isn't expecting to get beat up on and it'll probably turn into a rivalry."
Sports on 11/10/2018
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