The University of Central Arkansas Bears will begin a new season Thursday night with a fresh touch on an old rivalry.
The Bears will taken on former Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference and Gulf South Conference rival Henderson State at the new First Security Field at Estes Stadium.
The game will attract national attention not only because it will be one of the first college games of the season and the first college game in Arkansas, but it will mark the official debut of the purple-and-gray striped field, certainly the most unique look in all of college football. Largely because of the GeoSurface turf, NBC has ranked the contest as one of the top games of the weekend in all of collegiate football.
"I don’t give a damn whether folks are talking good or bad about us (the new field); I’m just happy they’re talking about us," said UCA coach Clint Conque about the attention.
When the focus shifts to what is on the field, the Bears will open the season with one of the deepest and most experienced teams in years (16 returning starters on the roster) and a group that has already created an excitement in the community not seen in decades.
Henderson State of NCAA Division II will also be embarking on a new journey. The Reddies are one of the members of the new Great American Conference, a combination of teams from the old AIC and Oklahoma Intercollegiate Conference that will begin its first season this year.
The Reddies are the preseason favorites to win the league’s first championship.
"We are playing a very talented and well-coached football team," Conque said, noting the Reddies have 32 transfers from Division I institutions on their roster and return two receivers with 100-plus catches for their careers. "They are breaking in a new quarterback but they have a lot of very good receivers."
And Conque said he has reminded his team (an NCAA Football Championship Subdivision member) not to take the NCAA Division II team for granted.
"I know as a Division II member, we beat UAPB a couple of times, and we came with a last-second field goal of upsetting UT-Martin," Conque said. "I remember those days when we played up as a Division II member and how motivated we were and the kind of effort we gave. I expect the same from Henderson State."
Both teams are nationally ranked in preseason in their respective classifications. UCA is ranked 19th in a consolidated poll that is a combination of all seven NCAA FCS polls. In those polls the Bears are ranked anywhere from 13th to 25th. Henderson State is ranked 24th in the American Football Coaches Association’s Division II preseason poll.
The rivalry is one of the oldest in the state, dating back to 1919 when then UCA as Arkansas Normal School defeated then Henderson-Brown 19-0.
The Bears lead the series 45-37-3. The last meeting was in 2008 when UCA prevailed 38-14.
UCA is 30-8 at home over the past six seasons.
Because of the Thursday night game, the state rivalry and the debut of the turf, one of the largest crowds in school history is anticipated.
UCA vs. Henderson State
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: First Security Field at Estes Stadium
Coaches: Clint Conque, UCA, 12th season, 80-47; Scott Maxfield, HSU, seventh season, 33-29.
Series: UCA leads 45-37-3 and is 26-13-1 in games played in Conway.
Last meeting: UCA 38, Henderson State 14, 2008.
Radio: UCA Network that includes KUCA, 91.3, FM, and 106.7 FM in Little Rock.
Notable: Tailgating will begin at 4 p.m ... The Bears are 11-0 in home openers under Conque ... After Thursday night’s game, the Bears will be on the road for three straight games — at Lousiana Tech, at Sam Houston State and at Arkansas State ... Their next home game is Oct. 1 against Stephen F. Austin.