A certain Little Rock weekend sports anchor struck a chord with Benton fans Sunday night. Before he ran the highlights of Bryant’s lopsided Salt Bowl win over Benton Saturday night, he questioned if the series is even a rivalry anymore. After all, Bryant has won 14 of the past 15 games. (The two teams tied in 2014.) It took about five minutes for an angry Benton fans to try to set the anchor, new to Little Rock, straight on social media.
But, he wasn’t the only one who has questioned the series. Plenty of others on social media this week debated whether the series should continue after Bryant racked up a 42-0 lead Saturday night before winning the sportsmanship-rule shortened game 48-7. It’s the second straight year the Hornets have scored more than 40 point en route to a blowout.
The series began in 1974, and the Panthers only lost four times from the inception until 1999, so the dominance has gone both ways, but as Bryant has grown its district the Hornets have gained power.
However, the series isn’t going anywhere. Period. It’s still one of the nation’s premier high school football rivalries, and is more than just football. I’ll get to that in a minute.
First, let’s go inside this Bryant winning streak. Yes, Bryant has had its share of blowouts since 2000, but as mentioned above, the teams did tie in 2014 and Bryant had to scratch and claw its way to a 10-7 victory in 2016. In 2018, the game was called in the third quarter with Bryant up 28-14 in the third quarter due to an incident in the stands. Bryant had the ball in its own territory with the momentum, but we will never know if the Panthers could have stopped Bryant on that drive and maybe scored in the third quarter to keep it close.
The Hornets are also enjoying historical success. It was just four years ago that Bryant made it to the playoff semifinals for the first time in school history and two years since it won its first state title. Bryant is the two-time Class 7A champion and heavy favorite to win this year.
Unluckily for Benton, who has played for the Class 6A state championship the past two seasons, Bryant happens to be a nationally dominant program at about the time they would have beaten a lot of Bryant teams throughout the history of the series. Simply put, Buck James has put the Hornets on a level that NO other Arkansas high school program is on currently. I would say it’s not close, some may argue that point, but Bryant is dominant and hasn’t lost a game since late in 2017.
How long can Bryant sustain that level? That is a good question. Next year, the Hornets will have to fill holes all around the offense, which could open the door for Benton. I’m not willing to bet Bryant will have their way with its rivals every year for the next 10 years with the same level of dominance. At some point, the talent level may dip a bit and give an opportunity to Benton, which has a roster which is filled with talent consistently. The other factor is, Bryant Coach Buck James is a heckuva coach. He’s taken an already salty Bryant program up two notches. His emergence has made it that much tougher for Benton Coach Brad Harris, who is a terrific coach in his own right.
So, there is hope for Benton fans on the field, but that’s not why this series will continue. It’s going to continue to thrive because it means more to the schools than football. The two communities have taken the rivalry and made it friendly enough to work together to earn thousands of dollars throughout the years. Also, the two sides have worked together to donate to worthy causes including peanut butter drives to the Arkansas Food Bank.
As a resident of Saline County and with good friends on both sides, I am proud of what the committee has done to solidify the game’s standing in Arkansas and nationwide. The two schools and communities have worked together to help each other and the county they reside in. That’s been cool to witness. There is no way they could have accomplished that feat without putting some of their differences aside to pull off this production, which in non-pandemic years includes a pregame tailgate party that spans around the War Memorial Stadium grounds.
I am confident next year when hopefully the world is closer to normal that the attendance will once again reach close to 30,000 fans. I don’t think a couple of lopsided losses are going to deter Benton fans. They will be especially excited for next year’s game if they can win a Class 6A state championship, which is a great possibility this year. Bryant’s dominance notwithstanding, there are plenty of 6A, let alone 7A schools, that wouldn’t come close to the Hornets this year. Benton is still the class of 6A and could ride into next season’s opener with the championship gold. That would definitely help attendance.
If the Benton numbers slip, Bryant may pick them up. The support for the school is unprecedented, and it is evident this fan base will travel.
Some new to the area may not believe it and others may question the validity, but the Salt Bowl isn’t going anywhere and regardless of the outcome Saturday night and is still among the greatest prep football spectacles around.
Photo credit: Jimmy Jones