An official beginning to a new "Battle Line Rivalry" with Arkansas marks Missouri’s latest efforts to try to fit into the SEC.
The two states have a lot in common, including former Tigers and current Razorbacks basketball coach Mike Anderson, as well as a once-disputed border. But for coach Gary Pinkel and Mizzou, setting the tone for a contrived rivalry shouldn’t be much of a priority heading into the two teams’ first meeting as conference foes Friday afternoon.
For the second straight season, the Tigers are one win away from an SEC East title and a trip to Atlanta. Even though Pinkel and, by extension, his players don’t like to talk about it much, it’s no secret they’re burning for another chance to win a conference championship game for the first time in school history.
"They know what’s out there, I think," Pinkel told reporters at his weekly press conference Monday. "I’d like to believe, and I think they’re doing this — they understand that all their attention and focus has to be to themselves and their playing."
It’s the same refrain every week from Mizzou’s winningest coach of all time, who also sidestepped a question about what another SEC championship appearance could mean for the perception of the program in college football’s best league and around the country. Pinkel has no reason to change his formula, considering the Tigers have won all seven games in November the past two seasons.
He’ll certainly have plenty to worry about with Arkansas, suddenly one of the most dangerous teams in the conference after back-to-back shutouts against No. 17 LSU and No. 8 Ole Miss. The Razorbacks allowed fewer than 100 rushing yards combined and their opponents reached the red zone only three times.
Missouri’s outstanding defensive line will face the biggest offensive line at any level of football with an average weight of more than 328 pounds. They’ve bulldozed the way for running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins to average a combined 180 yards per game this season, opening up an efficient play-action passing game.
"They present a lot of formational problems," Pinkel said. "With personnel they do a lot of unusual type things in how they line up formations, and they do that to get an edge to get an extra blocker at the point of attack and they’re very good at what they do."
Meanwhile, the Tigers’ offense keeps getting better and could do a lot more without its persistent penalty problems, which totaled 60 yards in last week’s 29-21 win over Tennessee. Sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk will need to be at his best and get some help from his receivers to jump-start an inconsistent and sometimes brutally ineffective passing game.
It won’t be easy, but the Tigers should be in good shape if they can get off to a quick start and keep the game close until the final quarter. Since a 31-27 loss to Indiana, Missouri has won five straight games decided by two touchdowns or less, while Arkansas has lost all four of its games decided by the same margin.
"I think we just kind of accepted it at that point, that’s what this season might be like," Pinkel said. "This season might be a fourth-quarter season."
So it would only be fitting if Mizzou went out the same way on Senior Day, when Pinkel said he’s always emotional at the start of games after hugging his seniors during pregame introductions. This year’s group has done some amazing things, and the Tigers know the importance of honoring their accomplishments.
The game’s setting and high stakes could prove to be an ideal way to kick off a rivalry Pinkel says could one day match the intensity of the Border War with Kansas, a claim nearly as bold as that by anyone who predicted Mizzou would reach the SEC title game after the loss to Indiana. The Razorbacks and Tigers will meet annually the Friday or Saturday after Thanksgiving, leading Pinkel to suggest fans can make it part of their holiday plans.
"You bring family in, you buy family packs, we’ll fill the stadium and then the off years you go back out as people trade off to go to their relatives outside," Pinkel said. "If we all get in that mode as Missouri fans, that’s something that I think can turn into a really great family situation, too."
He’s saying all the right things and the two universities are pulling out all the stops to manufacture a rivalry to fill the void left by the dormant Border War. They’re even designing a trophy for the winner, which will be presented at one of the two basketball games between Missouri and Arkansas in early 2015.
Maybe all the marketing will work and one day Pinkel will briefly emerge from his private, retired life for a documentary on the beginning of the Battle Line Rivalry’s storied history.
In the meantime, the Tigers have another SEC East title to win.