FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas center Travis Swanson tuned in to watch the Razorbacks play LSU in 2008 when he was a high school senior.
Swanson was heading to Arkansas the following summer. So he was well aware of how much the Razorbacks had struggled under new coach Bobby Petrino. But he also watched the disappointments seemingly disappear when Casey Dick threw the game-winning touchdown pass to London Crawford in the final seconds.
“I was watching with my dad and I was just freaking stressed,” Swanson said. “I was so stressed with everything that was going on. Finally, London caught that ball and I remember jumping up and down and just feeling so excited.”
Five years later, Swanson and the 2013 Razorbacks would love to duplicate the season-ending feat when they play 15th-ranked LSU in Tiger Stadium.
Arkansas (3-8, 0-7 in SEC) carries a school-record eight-game losing streak into its annual Battle for the Boot. Another defeat would leave the Razorbacks wallowing in the program’s first nine-loss season. It also would send Arkansas into the long offseason with a nine-game slide and its first winless conference season since 1942.
But coach Bret Bielema and the Razorbacks continue to cling to the fact there’s a big opportunity awaiting them today. One that can propel Arkansas into the offseason with much-needed momentum. It happened in 2008, when the dramatic 31-30 win injected some life into a program wrapping up its first season under Petrino.
“It almost was like no one cared about the record because we ended the season by beating LSU,” said Arkansas tackle David Hurd, who walked on to the program the next season. “It’s almost like if we can win this game, everything will get erased …
“Beating LSU would be big for recruiting, it can give us so much more momentum into the offseason. It would just be a huge boost for everybody.”
It’s no easy task, of course, for a team that hasn’t won an SEC game in its last 11 tries dating back to last season. The Razorbacks have been outscored 272-108 in conference play this year, struggling to keep pace on either side of the ball.
Arkansas had hoped to end its frustrations during the final home game against Mississippi State last week, but an overtime loss extended the misery.
Still, Bielema remains confident Arkansas is taking steps in the right direction.
“Our kids are growing every game, whether it is a sound defeat or a defeat in an overtime game it doesn’t matter, they are both losses and there is no victory in close,” Bielema said. “Our team continues to grow and I really don’t care what the score is. I just want to know they competed for four quarters and got better and have a chance to win the next one.”
The next opponent – the Tigers — present a daunting challenge even though they’ve lost conference games to Georgia, Alabama and Ole Miss this season. But LSU showed what it is capable of last week, dominating 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M during a 34-10 win in Tigers Stadium.
It helped LSU improve to 32-2 in Death Valley since 2009. The only losses came to top-ranked teams in 2009 (Florida) and 2012 (Alabama). LSU coach Les Miles has led his team to 23 straight wins against unranked opponents in Tiger Stadium.
But Miles said the Tigers would not underestimate the Razorbacks in the finale.
“I think our football team recognizes that Arkansas is a good football team,” Miles said. “It doesn’t make any difference that they have not achieved victory. They continue to improve. Our football team is directed about some goals and energy they have and I would expect them to play extremely hard Friday.”
The Tigers have won two straight in the series, including last year’s 20-13 victory in Razorback Stadium. The last meeting in Tiger Stadium came in 2011, when BCS No. 1 LSU played BCS No. 3 Arkansas in a game loaded with national title implications.
Arkansas has fallen far – and quickly – since that high stakes game.
But the Razorbacks — who are 2-8 in Tiger Stadium since joining the SEC — believe they can take an important step in their difficult journey back in today’s finale.
“I believe that any winning is beneficial to you, and if you happen to win the final ball game against a formidable foe, it’s even more important to a program,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “I want to go down there and play our hind ends off and see what happens.”