Arkansas is finally going to play Arkansas State in college football! In four years! It’s just the one time (at least for now), in Little Rock in 2025. Still, this is an event most folks thought they’d never live to see.
If you can’t find excitement for the birth of a new rivalry in one of America’s most reliably insane college sports states, I can’t help ya, but if you need some context as to why this is a big damn deal in the wonderfully weird Natural State (and therefore worth a curious/terrified gawk from outsiders), allow me to help.
It’s A Really, Really Long Time Coming
The Hogs and Red Wolves have never played each other in football. Ever. Arkansas’s had a program since 1894 and State’s been playing since 1911. The stalemate between these schools is the quintessential “Big Brother / They Scared” dynamic, featuring some truly textbook examples of message board hollerin’.
The Hogs are the state’s obvious flagship, and their refusal to engage with A-State wasn’t a glaring issue until the Red Wolves moved from their Division I-A independent status to the Sun Belt Conference in 2001. As a low-tier G5, A-State would’ve made perfect sense for the Hogs to bring in for a Homecoming game or a season opener.
That never happened. Over the 2000s, Arkansas State toiled in the shadow of Houston Nutt’s Hogs, but just as the Bobby Petrino era was skidding to a halt, the Red Wolves ascended as a Sun Belt power and a springboard for rookie FBS coaches to strike it big — Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn, and Bryan Harsin all coached in Jonesboro for a single season before leaving for bigger jobs.
Petrino was fired in April of 2012, shortly after Malzahn replaced Freeze. The state’s flagship in Fayetteville replaced Petrino with interim John L. Smith, then Bret Bielema, then Chad Morris, who went 0-14 in SEC play. Including a Covid-19 shortened debut season for current head coach Sam Pittman, the Hogs have won 40 games since Petrino was fired. A-State has won 69.
So if you’re a Hog power broker previously averse to giving a smaller in-state school some of your fancy SEC shine, watching said runt become Delta Boise during your decade of ignominy won’t motivate you to schedule them.
To wit: No other state in our union features just one Power 5 program and just one Group of Five program. Sure, Alabama held a pillow over UAB football because of some penny-ante bullshit among their respective Good Ol’ Boys, but there’s still Troy and South Alabama — AND AUBURN — to distract them inside their own state. In Arkansas, it’s just these two.
It Could Solve The Little Rock Problem
One of the reasons I stay fascinated with Arkansas The Football Program is because of its inability to rectify the politics of Arkansas The State. The real fast tl;dr: The capital of Little Rock (sitting in the center of the state) was and still somewhat is the hub of political and financial power in the state. However, the university was founded in Fayetteville (way up in the northwest corner). A flagship public school in a small, far-flung town is not at all uncommon — Google ‘land grant’ or just visit Athens or Oxford or the epitome; State College, Pa.
But unlike most college towns renowned and marketed in terms of quaintness, the sleepy northwest region of Arkansas exploded into modern Northwest Arkansas. Beginning in the 1980s, Wal-Mart’s wanton expansion pumped hundreds of millions into a corner of The Ozarks, followed by other regional powers like JB Hunt and Tyson.
Thus a push-pull between Little Rock’s decidedly more Southern “old money” and NWA’s overnight gazillionaires began, with control of Hog sports as a coveted, contested crown jewel. A byproduct of this battle is that Arkansas still plays one home game a year in Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium, a municipal, multipurpose facility built shortly after World War 2. The War Memorial game exists ostensibly to cater to Hog fans living in the area, but actually because a lot of Important People in Little Rock want it to be. Not only that, but Little Rock demands “meaningful games,” so Arkansas can’t just dump, say, a one-off vs. Louisiana-Monroe in War Memorial without hearing about it (although hey, that was a great show).
Playing home games off-campus at in-state facilities used to be a common thing in the South — Auburn and Alabama did it at Legion Field in Birmingham, so too did Ole Miss and Mississippi State at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson and Tennessee in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. Those far-flung college towns were often too small to host thousands of visiting fans and alumni for a weekend. But over the years cities like Fayetteville built up hospitality industries centered around home games, and the events themselves became far more valuable to keep on campus as TV money grew in the 2000s.
What makes the Hogs unique (read: crazy) here is that not only do they still play a home game in Little Rock, they also keep a standing engagement with Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, which eats a home game every other year. The Arlington agreement (currently in place through 2024) exists largely because of former Arkansas player and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who has built a legacy on beneficial decisions for his teams.
Thank Jerry if you’re an A-State fan: Because of Little Rock and Arlington, the original 2021 Hogs schedule featured only two SEC home games in Fayetteville. Pittman himself complained, and A.D. Hunter Yuracek was able to swap out a ‘21 Little Rock game vs. Missouri back to campus, putting SWAC member Arkansas Pine-Bluff in War Memorial this coming season and adding the Red Wolves in ‘25.
And that’s how to solve the Little Rock issue in Fayetteville — load up a rotation of FCS Arkansas teams with an occasional game vs. A-State. It makes too much sense for Arkansas to play the Red Wolves every year in Little Rock. The game could become a financial boon for the city, check the box for Little Rock power brokers, and provide great actual football, but there’s no way the powers that be will allow it to happen. The egos of boosters at middling SEC programs are particularly fragile. Padding the A-State Little Rock game with winnable dates vs. in-state FCS programs (UAPB and Central Arkansas) keeps the capital happy and message board psyches down to a dull roar.
It’s Good For The State of Arkansas
I’ve been to War Memorial. It’s not an SEC stadium, but it’s nice! The game I saw was vs. Georgia, which felt a little weird because of my stubborn belief that college football games are better on college football campuses, especially in conference play. But tailgating around War Memorial is accessible, and the vibe is far more collegiate than the Metroplex’s glorified Wal-Mart parking lot.
If Arkansas is determined to whack-a-mole coddle their geographic factions with home games, it’s way more entertaining if they embrace the state’s other FBS team. Could they lose? Absolutely! The Red Wolves have been far and away from the state’s best-managed program for the last decade-plus, but whose fault is that? Also, how is losing to A-State detrimental to the Hogs in the long term? Losing embarrassingly to lesser teams has become a function of Arkansas football the last 12 years, but the SEC still backs a dump truck of money up to campus every fiscal year.
The Red Wolves have built a small but reliable brand of exciting G5 football. Arkansas is sometimes good, usually not, but always weird. Pairing these two programs and layering the buttercream batshit anxiety of Hog fans on top could embody the best of this sport: Good is fine, bad is OK, weird is great, but entertaining is best.