As Sam Houston head coach KC Keeler walked off the NRG Stadium field in 2014 after winning his first Battle of the Piney Woods, the veteran coach looked over at athletic director Bobby Williams and said, “You did not explain this game properly.”
Regional rivalries are a unique aspect of the college football landscape, and as money and conference realignment continue to alter our reality, the next casualty is the yearly battle between Sam Houston and SFA in the Battle of the Piney Woods. The game dates to 1923 when Sam won the first battle, 19-6. The two East Texas rivals have played 95 times since. That’s makes it tied for the sixth-most played intra-state football rivalry in the state of Texas after Saturday.
Most played rivalries in Texas
118 – Texas/Texas A&M
117 – TCU/Baylor
111 – Texas/Baylor
108 – Texas A&M/Baylor
101 – TCU/SMU
96 – SFA/Sam Houston
On Saturday, the 96th rendition is sure to be the last, at least for a while. Sam Houston is moving up to the FBS ranks and continuing this contest does nothing for either program. Even if the fan bases don’t necessarily agree.
“This is the last one as long as I’m the head coach here unless they want to write a check for half-a-million dollars,” SFA head coach Colby Carthel told Dave Campbell’s Texas Football in a phone interview on Tuesday. “We’re going Saturday to play an FBS opponent on a neutral site for no money. That makes absolutely zero sense. If we’re going to play an FBS opponent, we need to be getting paid half-a-million dollars so we can help the rest of our athletic programs here at SFA.”
Sam Houston shares a similar opinion. There isn’t any value in keeping up a yearly rivalry game against an FCS opponent. If you win, no one bats an eye. If you lose, that’s recruiting momentum gifted to a program that’s only 90 miles away from Huntsville. But even if both head coaches know that this was an inevitable outcome of the growth at Sam Houston over the last 20 years, it doesn’t mean that the game won’t be missed by everyone involved.
“It is a loss for the state of Texas,” Keeler said. “It is a game that everyone talks about, even if you’re not affiliated with either school. We knew as we were making the move up to FBS that there would be growing pains, and this is a growing pain.”
The simple fact is that Sam Houston outgrew SFA as a peer during the first two decades of the 21st Century, and the numbers back up that claim. Sam Houston reported 18,251 students in the fall of 2021. SFA recorded 10,987 in the fall of 2020. The Bearkats’ athletic budget is a few million more than the Lumberjacks’. And the football rivalry became increasingly one sided. Sam Houston leads the overall series 59-34-2. Most of that discrepancy took place in the first few decades of the rivalry and over the last 20 years.
From 1923 to 1959, Sam Houston led the series 22-10-1. Then, from 1960 to 1999, SFA was 21-19-1. But since the turn of the century, Sam is 17-3 in the Battle of the Piney Woods. The Bearkats enter the 2022 game on a 10-game winning streak in the rivalry, which is the longest in its history.
“This hasn’t been a fair fight in a long time,” Carthel said. “These two schools have grown apart over the last 20 years, in my opinion. They’ve got so many more students, so much more money, and a bigger budget, and that’s why they’re moving up like Texas State did awhile back.”
But none of that matters on Saturday at NRG Stadium when kickoff takes place at 2:30 p.m. The size of the student body or the athletic budget or the different paths for the programs takes a back seat. Both teams want to close out the rivalry with a win, like Texas did earlier in the century when the rivalry against Texas A&M was lost when the Aggies jumped to the SEC. Decades of bragging rights are on the line, and both coaches are aware of the stakes.
Keeler began his coaching career at a small school in Massachusetts called Amherst. He was hired late, so when he arrived for his first day of work the other coaches were watching film on two teams – Week 1 opponent Williams and yearly rival Bates. Keeler was confused because the game against Bates wasn’t for weeks. When he asked why they were already scouting Bates, he was told, “because it is the only game that matters.” It was a lesson that helped him out when Keeler became acquainted with the Battle of the Piney Woods.
“(Sam Houston) isn’t quite there in terms of one game matters, but in many ways, it is the only game that matters,” Keeler said. “We talk about it for the rest of the year.”
SFA acquitted itself well in Carthel’s first two attempts at slaying Goliath. The Lumberjacks led in the fourth quarter of the 2019 and 2021 contests. The 2020 game wasn’t played due to the pandemic. The only other time the rivalry was put on pause was for a three-year span in the 1940s due to World War II. The Jacks couldn’t close the deal either time, losing by 11 points in 2019 and one point in 2021, but the performances did serve as a litmus test of the program’s improvement under Carthel.
“As of late, it has been a one-sided affair, but we’ve been knocking on the door the two times I’ve coached in it,” he said. “Hoping to win this last one because I know it is a big one.”
Neither team is playing at its best entering the matchup. Sam Houston is 1-2 with losses against Texas A&M and Northern Arizona. The Bearkats won their first game in Week 3 with a 27-17 victory over Texas A&M-Commerce. Quarterback Keegan Shoemaker entered the game in relief of Jordan Yates and is expected to start on Saturday for the second consecutive time against SFA. The Bearkats can’t win the conference title or reach the playoffs due to its ongoing transition into the FBS ranks. It was a tough message Keeler was forced to relay to his locker room last year. A locker room used to playing for championships.
“I told them, ‘The bad news was that we can’t play for anything such as a championship. That’s the standard here,’”, Keeler said. “The good news is we’ve gotten a lot of exposure and we get a chance to move to C-USA, and in nine years when you come back for the national championship reunion there will be 30,000 students on this campus and there will be big time college football here and you’re a foundation to that.”
SFA is 2-2 with losses to Jacksonville State and La Tech. The Jacks beat Warner 98-0 in Week 3. SFA entered the season as the favorite to win the WAC and as a national title contender in the FCS ranks thanks to a powerful offensive attack. The defense is being retooled, and that’s cost SFA a few times this season. But even with those lofty expectations and goals, there is no denying how important Saturday is for both teams.
“We’re going to play in bigger football games this year that mean more to our season and our current team in terms of conference championships and playoffs,” Carthel said. “We have bigger games ahead, but this game is the biggest one on the schedule for our overall program and university and school pride.”
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