LITTLE ROCK — Out of sight, out of mind for weeks, the if and who of Razorback football in Little Rock is back on the front burner, impetus courtesy of Arkansas vs. Mississippi State at War Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
In September, Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long said in Little Rock that he had mulled at least a half-dozen scenarios about the Razorbacks playing at War Memorial and made it clear he was not ready to make a decision. The possibility of the SEC going to a nine-game conference schedule and other extenuating circumstances are still in play, but I thought Long might announce something this week, even if only about the 2014 in-state sites.
The current contract calls for Arkansas to play two games per year in Little Rock through 2016, including one SEC game.
At this point, the schedule shows either Fayetteville or Little Rock for Nicholls State on Sept. 6, Northern Illinois on Sept. 20, Alabama on Oct. 11, Georgia on Oct. 18, UAB on Oct. 25, LSU on Nov. 15, and Ole Miss on Nov. 22.
The Razorbacks have only three in-state non-conference games in 2014 because a Sept. 13 contest in Lubbock begins a home and home with Texas Tech.
Normally, Arkansas would fulfill its Little Rock obligation with a non-conference game in September and Ole Miss. Both scenarios, and most any other one I can imagine, come with a catch. To that end, Long has undoubtedly talked with Bret Bielema about the coach’s druthers and has probably floated a variety of options with others involved.
If the Razorbacks play Nicholls State or Northern Illinois in Little Rock, consider the weeks elapsed before a game in Fayetteville. In the first case, Arkansas would open at Auburn on Aug. 30 and at Razorback Stadium on Sept. 20. In the second case, Arkansas would play in Fayetteville on Sept. 6 and again on Oct. 11.
Knowing that Bielema would prefer to avoid such lengthy absences from the friendly confines, my first thought was to pencil in UAB for Little Rock and move on to the conference schedule.
Playing Ole Miss in Little Rock means Nov. 15 would be the last chance to entertain recruits on campus and make an impression on high school athletes on the fence about being a Razorback.
If Bielema is unwilling to go that route, LSU, Alabama, and Georgia would be the possibilities for Little Rock. As long as Nick Saban is at Alabama and LSU continues to rack up highly regarded recruiting classes, success in the Western Division of the SEC begins with the Crimson Tide and the Tigers. Bielema is not about to surrender the perceived advantage of playing Alabama and LSU in Fayetteville.
My process of elimination puts Georgia in Little Rock. If accurate and UAB is the non-conference opponent, the Razorbacks would travel to Central Arkansas on back-to-back weekends and that would be a first since 2000, the final year the Razorbacks played three games in the Capitol city.
The best guess is that Long will consider all options and return to square one — a September game and Ole Miss in Little Rock. Around the state, the dates of vacations and weddings are on hold, pending Long’s decision.
No matter what Long does, his decision is likely to be a stopgap solution, much like the 2014 SEC schedule. Who knows when the SEC will settle on the future conference schedule, but Arkansas will be the home team against A&M in Arlington in 2015 and every other odd-numbered year through 2024, based on the current contract with Jerry Jones. In those years, Arkansas will have only three in-state conference games, creating another bind for Long each season he is committed to an SEC game in Little Rock.
Of course, the conversation turns in a new direction if the UA and the War Memorial Stadium Commission amend the current contract.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.