Putting football schedule together not easy

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Sunday, July 12, 2020
Arkansas center Ty Clary blocks a Colorado State defender during a game Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas center Ty Clary blocks a Colorado State defender during a game Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — Scheduling marquee nonconference games at the University of Arkansas comes with built-in obstacles and pitfalls, as athletic directors Jeff Long and Hunter Yurachek have discovered over the past 12 seasons.

A marquee series against Texas A&M that started as a long-term nonconference set and the challenge of balancing a schedule with home games also played in Little Rock have made piecing together the Razorbacks’ out-of-conference games tricky.

The Razorbacks contracted with Texas A&M to play a long-range series starting in 2009 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and won three games in a row before the Aggies joined the SEC and turned that annual affair into a conference game.

The series, which included a set of home-and-home games in 2012 and ’13, is scheduled through 2024. That arrangement leaves the Razorbacks with three in-state conference games in odd-numbered years when Arkansas is the designated home team against the Aggies.

Last season, the Razorbacks had two on-campus SEC home games — losses to Auburn and Mississippi State — because their home finale against Missouri was played in Little Rock.

Texas A&M Athletic Director Ross Bjork has let it be known he prefers all of the Aggies’ SEC home games be played at Kyle Field, which has recently undergone $450 million in renovations. Thus, the contract between Arkansas and Texas A&M — which began as the nonconference “Southwest Classic” when the Aggies were still in the Big 12 — has a chance of not being renewed after it runs out.

Marquee Mayhem

The Razorbacks have struggled to a 6-8 record in marquee games against major college nonconference opponents since entering the SEC in 1992, including 0-5 in home games. Games against SMU from 1992-99, in which the Razorbacks were 4-4, are not included. Rutgers was a contender in the Big East at the time of its 2012-13 series against the Hogs and now plays in the Big Ten.

YEAR Opponent Result Comment

2003 at Texas W 38-28 Cobbs, Jones rush for 100 yds vs. No. 5 Horns

2004 Texas L 22-20 Horns recover Jones’ fumble at UT 7 late

2005 at USC L 70-17 Destruction at the hands of No. 1 Trojans

2006 USC L 50-14 Combined score of 120-31 in the two-game set

2008 at Texas L 52-10 Petrino’s first crew can’t hang with No. 7 Horns

2009 vs. Texas A&M W 47-19 Mallett throws for 4 TDs in ‘Southwest’ renewal

2010 vs. Texas A&M W 24-17 Mallett passes for 310 yards, 3 TDs in 1st half

2011 vs. Texas A&M W 42-38 Record-breaking Wilson, Wright engineer comeback

2012 Rutgers L 35-26 Hogs lose despite Hamilton’s 303 receiving yards, 3 TDs

2013 at Rutgers L 28-24 UA collapses in fourth quarter

2014 at Texas Tech W 49-28 Hogs hang 7 rushing TDs, 438 yards on road

2015 Texas Tech L 35-24 Mahomes goes nuts against Hogs

2016 at TCU W 41-38 (2 OT) Austin Allen scores on 5-yard keeper to win it

2017 TCU L 28-7 Horned Frogs hold Hogs to 267 total yards

It hasn’t just been the long series in Arlington or the Little Rock scheduling that the Razorbacks have had to navigate. In the summer of 2016, Michigan backed out of a two-year agreement for a home-and-home set with the Hogs scheduled to begin in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 2018.

Long managed to add a road game against Colorado State in 2018, joining the previously scheduled Rams road game at Reynolds Razorback Stadium the next season. The Arkansas athletic department had to request a waiver from the SEC for the Colorado State series due to the league’s scheduling requirement of having at least one Power 5 nonconference opponent on the slate every year.

One good outcome from Michigan’s cancellation, which the Wolverines did to get Notre Dame back on their schedule, was to hook the Hogs up with Notre Dame, whom they are scheduled to face in Week 2 on Sept. 12 in South Bend, Ind., in the first meeting between the programs.

The back story to the Arkansas-Notre Dame series is just one chapter in the ongoing saga that is scheduling marquee games for the Razorbacks.

At the time Michigan formally dropped its series with Arkansas in July 2016, the Razorbacks had fewer nonconference games announced publicly than any other Power 5 program.

Yurachek walked into that scheduling conundrum when he took the reins of athletic director on Dec. 4, 2017.

Arkansas has added two sets of home-and-home series with Oklahoma State, starting in 2024 in Stillwater, Okla.; as well as two-game sets with BYU and Utah, starting in 2022 and 2026, respectively.

“I don’t know that [playing teams west of Arkansas] is necessarily a trend,” Yurachek told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette after scheduling the Utah series last year. “It’s who’s available and the dates that fit.

“We have the Power 5 scheduling requirement. Teams are scheduling so far out. There are some teams that are in the mid-30s right now. So it’s becoming more and more challenging to schedule games. But it’s east or west. We’re just looking for games that make sense.”

The oddities in Arkansas’ scheduling have led to several two-game sets separated by numerous years. In the case of the Razorbacks’ last contract with Texas, the Longhorns are set to return a game played in 2008 in Austin, Texas, at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in 2021.

The completion of the contract was delayed once, after the Razorbacks added the series with Texas A&M in 2009. It was tentatively scheduled for 2014, but moved again to 2021 due to scheduling issues at both schools, thus creating the 13-year separation.

Additionally, upcoming series with Notre, Dame, Oklahoma State and Utah are not scheduled to be played in consecutive seasons.

“You’d prefer to do them back to back,” Yurachek said. “We had some holes in the schedule for various reasons, like with Texas coming here in 2021 as kind of the long-range return game. Then you’ve got the Notre Dame series in ’20 and ’25, so it really made the scheduling very challenging.

“That’s what was very appealing about the Utah games. They filled the void in ’26 and ’28 with Oklahoma State in ’27. Then we can start looking for back-to-back home-and-home series.”

Arkansas fans might note that nearly all of the marquee home-and-home series are starting with a road game. That was the case with the Texas series, as well as sets against Texas Tech (2014-15), TCU (2016-17), and the future series with Oklahoma State (2024 and 2027, and 2032-33), BYU (2022-23) and Utah (2026 and 2028).

Arkansas senior associate athletic director Kevin Trainor said the propensity for starting marquee series on the road has included several factors, notably the “rhythm” of the Razorbacks’ scheduling.

“It has just been based on how games best fit into future schedules for both schools,” Trainor told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, noting that often the Razorbacks’ status as the home or road team for the Southwest Classic played a role in schedule planning.

Both series with Texas Tech and TCU started on the road in even-numbered years when the Razorbacks had four in-state conference games. The home games against the Red Raiders and Horned Frogs, in 2015 and 2017, came when the Razorbacks had only three conference games in Arkansas and was the home team against the Aggies in Arlington.

The Razorbacks success, or lack thereof, in marquee nonconference games is another story. They have not beaten a Power 5 team in a nonconference game in Arkansas since joining the SEC in 1992. Three times the Razorbacks have opened a two-game series with a road victory, only to fall the next year at home.

It happened after Matt Jones and Cedric Cobbs led a 38-28 upset of the Longhorns in 2003, snapping Texas’ 20-game home winning streak, the second-longest in the country at that time.

The same thing occurred after Bret Bielema’s 2014 team chewed up Texas Tech 49-28. The Red Raiders led all the way in a 35-24 win at Razorback Stadium the next year.

After Austin Allen and the Razorbacks won a 41-38 thriller in double overtime at TCU in 2016, the Horned Frogs entered Fayetteville the next season and laid a 28-7 loss on the Hogs in Bielema’s final season.

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