Tomorrow, Ole Miss and Arkansas will revisit their annual 60 minutes of insanity and maybe answer the question as to who between them will finish last in the SEC West.* Despite this being an SEC contest, this game will be held in War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, Arkansas, a venue that is decidedly not of a quality expected in the Southeastern Conference or, really, any P5 conference. This seems strange! Little Rock is nearly a three-hour drive southeast of Fayetteville, requiring a certain level of travel and logistics that would be befitting of an away game, and precluding many fans—particularly University of Arkansas students—from attending in person.
*Come on, search your heart. You know it to be true.
So why do they do this? Is it a good idea? And, if so, should Ole Miss (and other SEC programs) do the same?
To be fair, there are a few good arguments for Arkansas having a game take place in Little Rock, even if only once a season. For starters, Fayetteville is in the far northwestern corner of the state of Arkansas. Little Rock, on the other hand, might as well be the bullseye in your Arkansas-shaped dartboard (why did you buy that, again?). For many Arkansas fans, particularly those from areas around West Memphis or Texarkana, a game in Little Rock is much less of a slog to get to and from. So there’s a geography plus for Little Rock.
There is also the added benefit of playing in the state capital, and doing so in a manner that’s inclusive to the entire state, that unifies the state behind the Razorbacks in favor of, say, Arkansas State. If anyone has spent time near or around Arkansans, this benefit of creating a rabid and borderline disturbingly-dedicated fan base is readily apparent. Seemingly everyone in the Natural State backs the Hogs, and having games in Little Rock certainly contributes to that.
Also, there’s a golf course next to the stadium that fans tailgate on. That’s kinda like the Grove! That’s really nice. In fact, it’s such a nice idea, that the University of Michigan copied it!**
So the answer to this is rather simple: Arkansas does this as a nod to the fans. Every year, they have a “home” football game off of campus, but in an easier-to-attend location. They are being accommodating, and the fans return the favor with their dedication to plastic hog hats and spirit fingers. It actually makes a lot of sense.
So should Ole Miss play in Jackson?
Ole Miss used to play a good share of its home games in Jackson. The main argument for doing this, as far as I can tell, is that Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson was, for some time, larger than Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. It also had lights, something which Vaught-Hemingway did not have until 1990. This meant that all of Ole Miss’ night games prior to that season were held in Jackson out of a necessity. Also, Jackson, much like Little Rock, is centrally located within Mississippi. Getting to Oxford from the Gulf Coast is a hassle. Getting to Jackson from the Gulf Coast is also a hassle—thanks, Highway 49!—but it is not nearly the same type of affair.
And perhaps such a decision would be good for better cultivating an Ole Miss fan base within the state of Mississippi, something which Ole Miss has not done particularly well relative to other SEC West programs.
But the arguments for just cannot outweigh the single argument against this move, and that’s that Veterans Memorial Stadium is just not a venue fit for SEC football. Or any football. I know that several high school games are played there, and that Jackson State plays there, and that an NFL preseason game was played there a dozen years ago (for real, the Saints played the Colts there in 2006 for some reason), but Jackson—and Jackson State, and the state of Mississippi—would be much better served by a newer, or more well-renovated football venue.
In addition, while Arkansas is a program that is beloved throughout its state, football programs in Mississippi don’t enjoy the same sort of privilege. Ole Miss and Mississippi State dominate certain regions of the state, and split interest amongst themselves elsewhere. Add to that the strong Southern Miss loyalty in and around Hattiesburg, and the creeping influence of LSU and Alabama in Mississippi, and it feels like a bit of a lost cause for Ole Miss to try to win over fans with a game in Jackson.
Ole Miss, one could argue, has as much a fan presence in the Memphis area as it does in Jackson. Keeping games in Oxford, and staking out north Mississippi and the Memphis area as “Ole Miss country” makes sense. It may be dumb, it may not be that ambitious, and it may be provincial, which is perfectly on brand for Ole Miss anyway.
All of this is to say that having at least one game a season in Little Rock works well for Arkansas; it probably would not work as well for Ole Miss, so we should just keep our football to ourselves in Oxford. That’s fine.