Hog fans control atmosphere for pivotal Ole Miss game

For much of the last two decades, playing University of Arkansas games in War Memorial Stadium has been a divisive conversation if not an argument among Razorback faithful.

Standing in the middle of the storm, it’s hard to tell how much damage the issue has caused the program. There is no scientific formula for weighing the actual and the emotional components of the issue, but it is more than just a sticking point among fans.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs. Ole Miss
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13
Where: War Memorial Stadium, Little Rock
TV: SEC Network

Remaining schedule

Oct. 20 – Tulsa
Oct. 27 – Vanderbilt
Nov. 10 – LSU
Nov. 17 – at Mississippi State
Nov. 23 – at Missouri

For the sake of the season, Hog fans need to forget about the politics of fandom for the next 48 hours and just concern themselves with supporting and enjoying their Razorbacks.

Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. game at War Memorial Stadium against the Ole Miss Rebels (4-2, 0-2) needs to be equal parts celebration and war for 50,000 or so fans who have the opportunity to attend the game.

It’s too hyperbolic to say that the Razorbacks’ season hangs in the balance Saturday night. The Hogs are 1-5 and 0-3 in SEC play at this point, and the opportunity of earning a face-saving bowl trip seems to have flown out the window with losses to Colorado State and North Texas.

However, if this Razorbacks squad is going to post a meaningful victory on Arkansas soil this season, Saturday night might just be the night.

LSU (5-1, 2-1) looks too physical and talented to hope for an upset when the Tigers visit Razorback Stadium on Nov. 10, and with all due respect to Vanderbilt (3-3, 0-2) and Tulsa (1-4, 0-2), the Ole Miss game just means more.

There is more meaningful history between the programs dating back to emotion-filled and sometimes controversial games in the 1950s and ‘60s. The series became so heated in the early 1960s that it was dropped for a couple of decades, though the Rebels and Hogs did run into each other in the 1963 and 1970 Sugar Bowls.

However, the Razorbacks and Rebels have played annually since 1981. Arkansas dominated the series while still a member of the Southwest Conference, but the series evened out a bit when the Hogs joined the SEC.

Arkansas has won the last five games in the series. Former Arkansas coach Bret Bielema seemed to have the Rebels’ number, including a late-game, come-from-behind victory last season and the still unbelievable Hunter Heave in the 2015 game, which remains one of the most remarkable plays in college football history much less Razorback history.

Is the game a rivalry?

I doubt fans on either side would classify it that way. Programs like Arkansas and Ole Miss aspire to greatness and look forward more to the opportunity to knock off one of the SEC’s elite than the battles with conference foes of their own level.

As a fan, it’s hard for me to even admit that the Razorbacks and Rebels’ programs are on virtually the same level, but over the last two decades, it has been pretty close.

I think it’s objective to say that in most instances it’s difficult for either set of fans to feel like they’ve had a good season without beating the other.

That’s why Razorback fans need to make a stand Saturday night for the sake of the rebuilding effort that Arkansas head coach Chad Morris is attempting.

We’ve seen undeniable progress from Arkansas’ offense in losses to Auburn, Texas A&M, and Alabama. We’ve seen Arkansas’ defense play decently much of the season despite some very complicated circumstances. What we haven’t seen is a victory against a team that matters.

The Rebels are a 6.5-point favorite, but their offense is so explosive that I’m not sure it’s reasonable to expect the Hogs to keep up with Ole Miss; however, scoring 31 points on Alabama is impressive, even if some of them came against their second and third teams.

But we do know miracles can happen on Markam Street.

Matt Jones’ game-stealing touchdown pass to DeCori Birmingham to top Nick Saban’s LSU Tigers, 21-20, in 2002 is just one example of a great win in the venerable stadium.

I’ve never seen a better football game than when Quinn Grovey out dueled future Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware to whip Houston, 45-39, in 1989.

Arkansas’ 41-39 thriller over Baylor in 1981 that was decided by a late field goal by Bruce Lehay was another stunning shootout.

The Razorbacks ambushed heavily favored No. 2 Texas A&M at War Memorial in 1979, bushwhacking the Aggies, 31-6. Arkansas coach Frank Broyles left the pregame speech to his defensive coordinator Jimmy Johnson, who lit a fire under the Hogs, who secured the program’s first Cotton Bowl berth in a decade that day.

The Hogs also ran roughshod over No. 5 and eventual national champion Southern Cal to the tune of 22-7 in 1974.

Perhaps the most historic Razorback victory in War Memorial Stadium actually came against Ole Miss when Bowden Wyatt’s Hogs topped the No. 5 Rebels, 6-0, in 1954 thanks to 66-yard throw-back pass from Buddy Bob Benson to Preston Carpenter.

Legendary sports journalist Orville Henry opined that that victory stoked the state’s passion for Razorback football, and that everything that coaches like Broyles, Lou Holtz, Ken Hatfield, Houston Nutt, and Bobby Petrino accomplished can be traced back to that moment when the entire state fell head over heels in love with the Hogs.

Now, it would be foolish to say a victory over Ole Miss on Saturday would mean that much to Arkansas’ program. There is no way it could.

But Morris’ first SEC win will be significant whenever it does come. If it were to come Saturday agains the Rebels, it would be a truly meaningful statement for a program that is having uncommon success in the recruiting department despite the big-time lapses on the gridiron.

There isn’t much Hog fans can do about the play on the field. That is up to the players and coaches, but Arkansas fans do control the atmosphere that surrounds the game.

War Memorial Stadium was long known as one of the toughest venues in college football in coaching circles before emphasis on games in the state’s capital began to be deemphasized over the last 15 years or so.

The stands are so close to the playing field and the bowl captures the noise and puts right on top of the players.

Saturday would be the perfect night for fans to recapture the magic at War Memorial Stadium and bring its full force down on the Ole Miss Rebels.

Rain could be a factor, but the 6:30 p.m. kickoff will give Hog fans plenty of time to prepare for what hopefully will be a great Razorback performance.

If the fans put everything but this game aside and do their part, maybe Morris and his staff will have the Razorbacks ready to hold up their end of the bargain, too.