What Happens After the Battle of the Piney Woods Ends?

Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston State end one of the FCS’ fiercest rivalries after this Saturday. Can both schools find replacements?

The Battle of the Piney Woods is in doubt after this year.
Source: nrgpark.com

This weekend marks the final Battle of the Piney Woods for the foreseeable future between Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin. This is the 95th meeting between both schools with every meeting since 2009 occurring at Houston’s NRG Stadium, the home of the Texans. Like many rivalries, this is a casualty of conference realignment with Sam Houston State leaving for Conference USA next year and this rivalry is especially impractical with the teams split across the FBS and FCS.

After this Saturday, the big question is, can both schools find a logical imitation in the long run? Both schools play in dispersed conferences/alliances with Sam Houston playing in Conference USA and Stephen F. Austin playing in the WAC/ASUN Alliance.

Sam Houston has a couple of ideal opponents in Conference USA to create a replacement for the Battle of the Piney Woods. The most ideal conference mate for a new rivalry is Louisiana Tech. The Bulldogs are 5 hours from Houston and one hour from Shreveport, which means the two schools could alternate their series between Shreveport and Houston.

Sam Houston State is three hours away from Shreveport so the trip is manageable for Bearkats fans. Additionally, Shreveport did lobby for a kickoff game in 2014, so a Louisiana Tech-Sam Houston State game would be a welcome addition.

For Stephen F. Austin, two options exist for a Battle of the Piney Woods spin-off. Of course, they would be Tarleton State and Abilene Christian. Houston would not be ideal for either Tarleton State or Abilene Christian, with the Texans being five hours away and Abilene six hours away, but Dallas is a very attractive option as those schools are both less than three hours away.

The most ideal venue for their rivalry would be Choctaw Stadium, or Globe Life Park, the former home of the Texas Rangers. The stadium is no stranger to FCS football, as it has hosted multiple HBCU classics including this year’s Southern vs Texas Southern game. It has also hosted a pair of WAC/Southland games. In 2020, a pandemic crowd of 5,211 saw Stephen F. Austin beat Abilene Christian 35-32 and the following year, Tarleton State “hosted” Southern Utah in front of a crowd of 8,346.

Of course, they could also host the game at Toyota Stadium, the current home of the FCS Championship game as well. The venue seats 20,000 so there would be less pressure for the schools to sell tickets than at Choctaw Stadium. Traveling to Dallas is not too much of a burden for Lumberjacks fans who already travel two hours to Houston for the Battle of the Piney Woods and Dallas is just three hours away.

With Houston losing the Battle of the Piney Woods, the Dallas-Fort Worth area has the chance to own the biggest rivalry in the WAC and Southland footprint. To keep some sense of normalcy, both Sam Houston State and Stephen F. Austin must build some interest in their series with their regional conference foes.

While Sam Houston joins the FBS ranks in Conference USA, they have hardly any rivalries with their future conference cohorts, having only played their future conference members a combined eight times. Stephen F. Austin is in a similar position. The WAC/ASUN alliance will only have two other Texas schools, but the Lumberjacks’ history with Tarleton State and Abilene Christian pales in comparison to their history with Sam Houston State.

Conference realignment kills rivalries and fans lose in the long run. This weekend’s final Battle of the Piney Woods is evidence of this. The schools have options to replace this venerable rivalry, but it will not feel the same.