story by David Rice
Editor’s note: Welcome to the fourth season of Tusk to Tail – the sport of tailgating as organized, performed and perfected by a group of Hog fans who have been tailgating together sober and otherwise for more than a decade. Members of the Tusk to Tail Team are Sean Casey, Jack Clark, Dale Cullins, Greg Houser, Craig May, David Rice and Mark Wagner. Tusk to Tail is managed by Talk Business & Politics. Legal representation is iffy at best and professional psychological help is typically ignored, if not mocked.
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It is no coincidence bowl games have become synonymous with ringing in the new year. The New Year is a celebration of hope and renewal, a sense that this will be the year it all comes together, whether via earnest resolutions or mouthfuls of lucky beans and greens.
College football bowl games were designed to celebrate the recent past, a cherry on top of a 12-Saturday sundae to reward the players and fans for a successful season.
While the best games reside in vacation destinations like Miami and Pasadena, the opposite end of the bowl spectrum will land you in Memphis, Houston, or even Shreveport, Louisiana. I’ve been to my share of these lower-tier games. They are less celebratory vacation than a prompted pledge to do better next year.
The Razorbacks’ last trip to Memphis for the 2010 Liberty Bowl followed Bobby Petrino’s second season on the Hill, and was used as a springboard to the Sugar Bowl the following season. But the game itself was so cold, it literally cost our mascot his life. By the time Tusk II’s handlers got his open trailer to Dardanelle after the excruciatingly frigid overtime victory, the Russian boar was legs up, a frozen porkchop sacrificed for 7 middling wins. If that doesn’t resolve you to try harder, I’m not sure what will.
Tusk to Tail felt a new sense of hope coming into this season after last year’s “borderline erotic” whipping of the Longhorns in the Texas Bowl, only to be sucker-punched by a 2-4 start.
“As you can imagine,” I wrote following the loss to Texas Tech. “Tusk to Tail is fairly upset by the Hog’s unexpected slide. I’m personally upset less by the slide than the fact that it was unexpected.”
But they always pull us back in. Before long, the Hogs were winning six of the next seven, including dramatic overtime victories over Auburn and Ole Miss, and running LSU out of their own building. Perhaps only American Pharoah ran harder in 2015 than Alex Collins, who took the rock from Brandon Allen and followed roadgrader blocks by Sebastian Tratola, Denver Kirkland, and Dan Skipper. Tight end Hunter Henry was deemed the best in all the land.
Allen, Tratola, and a few other key seniors were playing their last game as Razorbacks. Many others are contemplating entering this year’s NFL draft. Whereas the Liberty Bowl once signified a launching pad, the warning signs are there for another dreaded rebuilding year ahead. Playing on a cool January Saturday in a weird little stadium in Memphis may not be ideal, but baby it’s all we got.
The morning started with a good omen for the future. Five-star running back prospect Devwah Whaley committed to Arkansas during the Under Armour All-America game live on ESPN2. If Collins leaves the Hogs to turn pro, it is not out of the question that this kid takes the first handoff next season.
Word of Whaley’s commitment immediately spread throughout the network of hungry Hog fans waiting to be seated at Central BBQ. The line already snaked around the outdoor seating area and down the block when we got there at 10:30 a.m., and was getting longer by the minute. We were already wearing multiple layers for the pending cool kickoff, so it was decided lunch would be ordered from the To Go window and eaten outside on their patio. Tablegating is nothing new to Tusk to Tail, though typically enjoyed above 40 degrees. My son Jackson and I enjoyed the ribs and smoked chicken, and those who ordered pulled pork ate every single bite.
After lunch it was time to head to the 57th annual Liberty Bowl. Dale Cullins, Sean Casey, Mark Wagner, and Todd Rudisill each had parking passes for Silver Lot 5, practically under the shadow of the stadium scoreboard.
For this over-and-back daytrip tailgate, Tusk to Tail hit the easy button. No tent, no televisions, not even any folding chairs. Just a couple of coolers holding the last 40 beers from season’s end, some lemonade for mixing with a bottle and a half of Firefly Sweet Tea vodka, and stacks and stacks of red Solo cups.
“It’s total liquidation today at Tusk to Tail,” I joked with Cullins. “Everything must go!”
Our small group of about 20 gave it hell. The vodka was the first to go, and a sizeable dent was made in the beer while the kids threw a football nearby. The scoreboard served a soundtrack of historic Memphis music to keep our party rocking. Sam Atkinson and Clay Curtner were moved by Sam and Dave, Jerry Lee Lewis, and some obligatory Elvis hits, while cuts by Al Green and vastly underrated garage rockers Big Star served a welcome respite in an era where every stadium plays the same half dozen jock jams.
As the surrounding tailgates began taking down tents and stowing chairs, Cullins took relief that our rustic operations left nothing to dismantle. Most of our guests filled a go cup with one final beverage before walking to the nearby gate.
There has been a fair amount of conjecture whether Alex Collins would declare for the NFL draft after this game. It could certainly be argued there is little more he can prove in college following his third consecutive 1,000 yard season.
Of course if he does return for his senior year, all he can do is continue setting records, which has its own upside. If his celebration pose following his third touchdown Saturday was any indication, Collins may have his eyes on an exclusive prize: the Heisman trophy. As he crossed the goal line for the hat trick to accompany his 185 yards on the ground, Collins hiked his leg and struck a stiff arm reminiscent of the famous trophy pose. If he plays another season like this one, it would not be hard to imagine Collins on a stage in New York with the other Heisman finalists at next season’s finale.
And thus we end another season and start a new year full of hope, hoping for a little luck. Even though the Hogs will be breaking in a new quarterback, each of the potential new starters brings a skill set and reputation at least equal to, if not greater than Allen’s.
Can Bielema’s bunch of Razorbacks use the Liberty Bowl as a springboard to the next level? Or are we destined to be stuck inside of Memphis with the better bowl blues again?