Teams can play for a trophy, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a rivalry. (Here’s looking at you, LSU-Tulane Rag.)
The rivalry between Central Arkansas and McNeese State was born out of convenience rather than any previously established ire between the schools or regions. When UCA joined the Southland, its end-of-year opponent became the Cowboys since neither had a natural rivalry game. A trophy, the Red Beans and Rice Bowl, was created to sweeten the pot.
Then the strangest thing happened. The unnatural rivalry actually lived to its contrived billing, and has built up the intensity of those that are decades in the making.
“McNeese is always a game I thoroughly enjoy preparing for,” said UCA coach Clint Conque. “It’s a game that the players enjoy playing in. For me, having ties to that area, family and lifelong friends there. It’s a game our program really embraces.”
Conque’s father-in-law, Sonny Jackson, coached McNeese from 1987-89, and Conque was one of his assistants.
Two of Conque’s former assistants, Slade Nagle and Chris Hampton, joined the McNeese coaching staff this season.
“I think (the rivalry’s) built more off of how competitive the games have been, not the coaches,” said McNeese coach Matt Viator.
The series is split down the middle, which each team winning three times at home.
The last three games have been decided by just one score.
Last year, UCA survived for a 21-18 win over the Cowboys in Conway despite not scoring in the final 47 minutes of the game. McNeese went 3-for-6 in the red zone in the game, with two of the missed opportunities coming in the fourth quarter. The other turned into a 99-yard fumble return for a UCA score.
In 2010, also in Conway, the Cowboys came up short on four shots at the end zone from the UCA 4-yard line in the final minute of a 28-24 loss. UCA led that game 21-0 in the first quarter before McNeese stormed back. The loss cost McNeese a chance at a playoff berth.
In 2009, the last meeting between the two in Lake Charles, McNeese won 21-17 to clinch a share of the conference title. It took a defensive stand to get the job done as the Bears drove to the McNeese 38 with less than 2 minutes remaining before stalling with four straight incompletions.
“The last three years, the losing team has had the ball at the end of the game in all three cases,” Viator said. “I think any time you’re that competitive, it tends to build a rivalry.”
With the rebirth of Lamar’s football program, the Cowboys (4-1, 1-1 SLC) and Bears (4-2, 2-1) no longer meet at the end of the year. But moving the game to the middle of the season has done nothing to lower the stakes.
Only one team has ever won the Southland title with more than one conference loss. Thus, the loser of Saturday night’s showdown will find itself trying to fight 46 years of history.
“It’s a big game,” said right tackle Alec Savoie. “We have to go undefeated the rest of conference to have a hope at winning. We’ve been up there the last couple years and lost. It’s been ‘09 since we’ve beat them. It’s really important we focus in this weekend and beat them.”