FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas-LSU game had become synonymous with the Friday after Thanksgiving, producing its share of fantastic finishes on national television over the past 20 years.
But the 2014 Southeastern Conference schedule officially showed that the Razorbacks must get used to playing a different brand of Tigers around the holiday.
Arkansas-LSU was moved out of its tradition spot on Thanksgiving weekend, sliding up two weeks to Nov. 15 in the conference’s 2014 schedule. The Razorbacks, instead, will travel to play at Missouri to end the 2014 regular season, while LSU and Texas A&M meet in a game that will be played on Thanksgiving night.
It wasn’t shocking news considering the Tigers and Aggies had made it clear they wanted to meet Thanksgiving weekend ever since Texas A&M entered the conference. But the end to a Thanksgiving weekend series that began in 1992 remained disappointing for Arkansas when it became official.
“The end of the year, I know it had been a long-standing tradition here with the LSU game,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said before a speaking appearance at the Little Rock Touchdown Club on Wednesday afternoon. “I know Jeff had been fighting that fight for a long time. But it’s a different day and age in the conference.
“I knew there was going to be some curve balls that were thrown and I think that’s one that I know that means a lot to the fans here.”
Arkansas and LSU had played Thanksgiving weekend every year since the Razorbacks joined the SEC in 1992. Most of the games had been on the Friday after Thanksgiving, too, locked into a nationally televised slot on CBS.
It helped that the game produced many memorable results like the Arkansas’ 21-20 win in the Miracle on Markham in 2002, the triple overtime game in Baton Rouge in 2007, and the battle between BCS No. 1 and No. 3 teams in 2011.
Long said he tried to keep the end-of-the-year spot intact.
“I don’t want to dramatize it, but I certainly made my feelings known strongly and in an appropriate manner within the conference,” Long said. “Both with (SEC) commissioner (Mike) Slive and my fellow ADs.
“So they knew where I stood clearly on it. But at the same time you understand that it is a conference of 14 and the SEC has a number of objectives they have to try to meet in that schedule and very disappointingly and unfortunately for us, a game that has developed into a rivalry at the end of the season won’t be there.”
Long stressed the rivalry will remain, though, in its new spot as Arkansas’ 10th game.
The Razorbacks, meanwhile, move forward with hopes of establishing a rivalry with Missouri. The schools are in closest proximity to each other in the SEC and Long has been a proponent of playing an annual game against the SEC East team.
The 2014 Arkansas-Missouri game is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 29, but could move up one day. Long said the decision belongs to CBS, which could also choose games like Alabama-Auburn, Ole Miss-Mississippi State and Vanderbilt-Tennessee.
“We’ve had that Friday slot with LSU all but two years, I think, since they’ve been doing it,” Long said. “We have half of that traditional spot on Friday and we’re still there and available and we’re hoping CBS will view our participation in that Friday game the same way we do and select us.”
The season-ending opponent wasn’t the only interesting element of the schedule.
Arkansas — under the SEC’s current 6-1-1 scheduling format — will play Georgia as its rotating SEC East opponent on Oct. 18. It means the Razorbacks won’t play South Carolina for the first time since the schools entered the conference together in 1992.
The Razorbacks also have a loaded home schedule with SEC games against Georgia, Alabama (Oct. 11), LSU and Ole Miss (Nov. 22). There are two bye weeks as well, falling before the Alabama and LSU games
“The best thing for me as a head coach is you have a bye week before Alabama and LSU, which I think times up very, very well,” Bielema said.
The biggest schedule surprise Wednesday: Arkansas won’t get to ease into the year against a nonconference opponent. Instead, the Razorbacks will play at Auburn on Aug. 30, opening the season against an SEC opponent for the first time.
Long said playing early conference games is driven by the creation of the SEC Network, which will begin next year. He said it won’t be the last time Arkansas plays an SEC opponent in either its first or second game to begin a season.
“It won’t be every year we have a conference opponent to open,” Long said. “But certainly you’ll see conference games moved up to that first week of the season.”
Said Bielema: “I really would’ve loved one to obviously be in Fayetteville, but hopefully we get the return favor. To play Auburn, I know, is a very nice challenge.”
It’s the start of what should be a busy first month for the Razorbacks. Arkansas will travel to Auburn, play a home game against Nicholls State, and then travel to Texas Tech. The Razorbacks then play at home against Northern Illinois before traveling to play its neutral-site conference game against Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas.
It’s not yet known if Arkansas will play either Nicholls State or Northern Illinois in Little Rock as part of its agreement with War Memorial Stadium. The Razorbacks are under contract to play one nonconference and one conference game in War Little Rock through the 2016 season.
Long has asked Kevin Crass, chairman of the War Memorial Stadium Commission, for more time to select the games One reason: He wants to make sure Bielema has the game day experience in Little Rock before discussing it with him.
But Long also said the way the schedule is laid out creates a “particular challenge.”
Playing Nicholls State or Northern Illinois would mean Arkansas would play four of its first five games away from Fayetteville. The other option is waiting until the final nonconference game against Alabama-Birmingham on Oct. 25.
“I’ve asked for a little bit more time,” Long said about selecting the game. “I’m hoping the War Memorial Stadium commission will grant that. I think they will.”