FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. didn’t realize he would have a role in the end of an era today.
It’s an understandable oversight. The final leg of the annual cross-division battle between Arkansas and South Carolina hasn’t garnered national news. There won’t be any ceremonies or celebrations to mark the occasion this afternoon, either.
But Lunney Jr., who was a freshman quarterback at Arkansas when the series began in 1992, sounded as if a part of him was disappointed to see it go.
“This is it,” Lunney Jr. said after Tuesday’s practice. “That’ll be kind of weird. That’s kind of been a mainstay for 20 or 21 years now.”
Arkansas and South Carolina, who entered the SEC together in 1992, will play for the final time as annual opponents when they meet in Razorback Stadium today.
Arkansas (3-3, 0-2 in SEC) will move on to meet Missouri as its SEC East permanent opponent next season with hopes the annual game can blossom into a rivalry. South Carolina (4-1, 2-1) will face Texas A&M as its SEC West permanent opponent.
The two programs were pitted against each other for 21 years ago after being the conference’s newest arrivals. They’ve played some memorable games as well. But the yearly meeting has produced differing opinions on whether it truly was a rivalry.
“Well, they’re a team we play every year, we know that,” said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who is 3-5 in the series. “They sort of got the best of us. I don’t know, rivalries are more schools close by, that’s usually the ones you play historically, 50, 60 years or more, are generally the rival games.”
Bobby Allen, who is Arkansas’ director of high school relations, felt differently after being part of the program for 15 of the 21 games dating back to 1998.
“It feels like it’s been a rivalry game, because we’ve played them every year,” Allen said. “Some people might say it’s not because we’re not touching borders, so it’s not a true rivalry. But it’s the team from the East we’ve played every year, so we’ve looked forward to that.”
The series has been good for the Razorbacks, who have won 13 of the 21 games.
There have been many memorable moments, too, including the initial meeting in 1992 when Arkansas picked up its first SEC win by beating South Carolina 45-7. The victory came a week after Jack Crowe was fired for the loss to The Citadel.
The Razorbacks carried interim coach Joe Kines on their shoulders after wrapping up the win, which was one of the few bright spots during a 3-7-1 season.
“I just remember that our team kind of rallied around Coach Kines and went from playing really poorly to playing probably our best game of the year,” Lunney Jr. said. “We did. I mean it was our best game of the year.”
Arkansas also beat South Carolina 51-21 when Lunney Jr. was a senior in 1995, picking up steam for the program’s first run to the SEC Championship Game. Former Arkansas coach Lou Holtz came back to Little Rock as the Gamecocks coach in 1999, which was a game the Razorbacks won 48-14. Arkansas also recorded a memorable win against Holtz in 2001, when Carlos Hall’s field goal block in Little Rock helped the Razorbacks preserve a 10-7 win against the ranked Gamecocks.
There was much more historical significance in 2007, when former Arkansas running back Darren McFadden sliced through South Carolina for an SEC record 321 yards to lead the Razorbacks to a 48-36 win in coach Houston Nutt’s final season.
The 2007 game was part of a six-year stretch in which Arkansas beat South Carolina five times (2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011). It included three straight wins in Fayetteville, which is a run of success Arkansas carries into today’s meeting.
“They’ve just beat us,” said Spurrier, whose last win in Fayetteville came with a 14-10 victory in 2005. “They soundly beat us. They soundly beat us here at home in 2010. We’ve got to play better. They’re a good team. We’ve got to go play well.”
South Carolina is trying to keep pace with Georgia and Florida in the SEC East championship race. The Gamecocks can do so by winning its second straight against the Razorbacks, which is a feat it has accomplished only twice (1996-97, 2004-05).
Quarterback Connor Shaw — who was knocked out of the 2011 game with a concussion — knows it won’t be easy to do so again against the SEC West rival.
“They’ve had our number more than we’ve had theirs,” Shaw said. “We were fortunate enough to beat them last year, but it’s always an intense matchup and it’s a game we’re looking forward to.”
It has always carried plenty of meaning for the Razorbacks, whose postseason plans have typically been determined by its success against the Gamecocks.
The Razorbacks have beaten South Carolina 13 times since joining the SEC and reached a bowl 11 of those seasons. The only misses came in 1992 and 1993, when Arkansas finished 3-7-1 and 6-4-1, respectively.
Arkansas has never had a winning season in a year it lost to South Carolina. Only one of those teams reached a bowl. The 2000 Razorbacks finished 6-6 and received an invitation to play in the Las Vegas Bowl.
“It’s always been a game that’s had something riding on it,” Allen said.
So there should be no surprise it’s important for Arkansas once again as the Hogs prepare to play South Carolina for the first time under coach Bret Bielema.
The Razorbacks limp into the game with a three-game losing streak and are in danger of falling below .500 overall and 0-3 in SEC play. But Bielema said his team remains confident as it prepares to face the Gamecocks. Bielema also said he’s been looking forward to squaring off against Spurrier for the first time.
“Coach Spurrier has been such an icon in our profession for a such a long time,” Bielema said. “I’ve had tremendous respect … It’s a tremendous challenge for our coaching staff and I think it’s one of those things when you get in the profession, one of those true benefits that you can never actually imagine until you’re there doing it.
He’ll have to make it count because the annual series between Arkansas and South Carolina, who entered the SEC together in 1992, will end this afternoon. It’s not known when the teams will line up to face each other again.
“I don’t know if it’s been a rivalry,” Arkansas tight end Austin Tate said about the South Carolina series. “But I’ve looked forward to playing them every year.