COLUMBIA, Mo. — Today, for the first time since Missouri joined the Southeastern Conference in 2012, the Tigers will meet the Arkansas Razorbacks on the football field. Though the teams have played just five times before, the game has been labeled the Battle Line Rivalry — thanks to geography, Shelter Insurance and the void left by the now-dormant Missouri-Kansas tug-of-war.
The sponsors say it’s a rivalry. How about the players?
Quarterback Maty Mauk: “I think so. They’re right across the border and close to us, so we want to come out here and treat it just like we would if it were another rival game, whether it’s Kansas or whoever. We’re going to come out firing and ready to play.”
Linebacker Michael Scherer: “It’s the start of one. It’s our job to start it off right.”
And the coach?
Gary Pinkel: “It will be. I think our players are competitors, and they certainly have great respect for Arkansas. I compare it a little bit to the Kansas rivalry. It didn’t happen overnight. It happened over time. It’s a great rivalry. (Arkansas is) a very good university. It’s adjacent to us to the south of us, and I think it presents itself to be a very good situation.”
Rivalry or no, Missouri doesn’t need any added motivation for today’s game (1:30 p.m. KRCG-TV). With a win, the 9-2 Tigers claim an outright SEC East title for the second straight year and a trip to Atlanta to compete in the SEC Championship game.
A month ago, a win in Missouri’s day-after-Thanksgiving contest might have looked easy as pumpkin pie. The Razorbacks failed to win a conference game last season, and that 17-game drought stretched into November. But Arkansas snapped that streak decisively with back-to-back shutout wins against No. 20 LSU and No. 8 Mississippi.
And even when the Razorbacks were losing games, they were playing competitively in the vaunted SEC West. Arkansas took a sixth-ranked Texas A&M team to overtime, lost to No. 7 Alabama by one point and No. 1 Mississippi by seven.
If the Tigers want to return to Atlanta, they know they’ll have to earn it.
“What we see right now, the success (of Arkansas) doesn’t surprise me,” Pinkel said. “I always watch the teams we’re going to play all year long, and they’ve done a great job building that football program.”
Standing between Missouri and its 10th win of the year will be Arkansas’ offensive line, whose average weight of 328.4 tops any offensive line in the country — professional teams included. The 6-5 Razorbacks’ offense ranks second in the SEC in rushing touchdowns and fourth in rushing yards per game.
“It’s definitely interesting to see how gigantic they are,” Missouri offensive lineman Mitch Morse said. “It’ll be fun to see them on the sidelines.”
While Morse spectates, the Arkansas O-line will be facing its own daunting challenge: Shane Ray, Markus Golden and the Missouri defensive line. The Tigers rank fourth in the nation with 40 sacks, more than double the number recorded by Arkansas’ defense. Ray alone has the third-most sacks per game in the nation, and his 13.5 sacks are a school record.
Golden, meanwhile, has fully recovered from a nagging hamstring injury and recorded two sacks in each of his past two games.
“Now I feel like teams are going to have to make the choice: Which guy are you going to want to free up on this play and that play?” Ray said. “I just think that makes it harder on offenses and makes it easier for us as two guys who are just going to come after the ball.”
Though Ray and Golden have each earned SEC defensive player of the week honors at least once this season, Ray feels Missouri’s defense, the only in the SEC to hold every conference opponent to less than 400 total yards of offense, has yet to get its due.
“They never give us the credit we deserve, but that’s all right,” Ray said. “We’re going to keep playing Missouri Tiger defense and keep attacking offenses. Whether or not you believe we’re the defense that we are, your quarterback’s going to find out. Your running back’s going to find out. Your receiver’s going to find out that we’re going to come out and we’re going to play for 60 minutes and hit you in the mouth.”
Lack of respect is a sentiment shared by Missouri players on both sides of the ball.
“Not at all, honestly,” Mauk said when asked if Missouri gets enough respect. “After a win, maybe, but then right back at the beginning of the week, it’s back to basically, ‘Missouri ain’t nothing.’ They don’t respect us, so we don’t worry about it.”
A second straight visit to the SEC Championship game could change that.
“I don’t think people would’ve ever expected that, especially after the first year we had in the SEC,” Scherer said. “But sometimes I feel like people don’t want us to be there, which we kind of like, getting picked against every week. So I think maybe if we haven’t earned some respect yet, by getting back in we will.”
To do that, the Tigers have to beat their new rivals.
“We understand that respect is just intangible,” Ray said. “People can give it to you one week and take it away from you. What you can’t take away from people is a championship. That’ll speak for itself. Right now, we’ve got a big Arkansas team we’ve got to face. They’re in the way, and we have to get ready.”