Sometimes the games have been blowouts. Sometimes they’ve been close and low-scoring. A few times, Sam Houston State has had to hang on for dear life.
No matter how the games have played out, when it comes to the Battle of the Piney Woods over the last eight years, it’s been all Bearkats.
However, the oldest FCS rivalry in Texas has not always been one-sided.
Since its birth in 1923, the annual gridiron grudge match between the Bearkats and the Lumberjacks has been something special.
With both Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin competing in the same league since the two began competing, the winner of the “Piney Woods” showdown has gone on to become conference champion 19 times. Sam Houston holds a 56-35-2 edge in the series. The Bearkats have won 13 conference titles in their football history while SFA has totaled five.
Perhaps the proximity of the two universities named for Texas history heroes has been a factor in the intensity of rivalry (the distance between Huntsville and Nacogdoches is less than 100 miles). Whatever the reason, the annual game has always been a grudge match.
The series began on November 17, 1923, but the Bearkats wouldn’t pick up a victory in the rivalry until 1925. In 1930, a victory over SFA propelled Sam Houston to its first conference championship as a 20-0 shutout in Huntsville completed a 9-1 season with a Texas Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship.
Between 1926 and 1941, both teams ended their seasons with the “Battle of the Piney Woods” contest. Ten times, the game was played on Thanksgiving day. The pair met in season finale matchups 23 more times from 1949 to 1983. The rivalry settled on a mid-October date after both moved up to the Southland Conference.
Twenty times since 1988, one or both teams have come into the “Piney Woods” shoot-out ranked among the top 25 FCS teams. Sam Houston won 13 of those meetings including victories over a nationally-ranked SFA squad in 1996, 1997, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2014.
The 2001 “Battle” that matched No. 16 Sam Houston and No. 19 SFA and featured a showdown between future pro quarterbacks Josh McCown and Wes Pate brought the highest ratings ever for a Southland Conference regional telecast. Sam Houston won 24-21 and went on to win the league title.
Since that 2001 game, eight of the 18 contests have been decided by less than a touchdown. Sam Houston State has won 15 of those games.
The winner of the “Battle of the Piney Woods” earns more than bragging rights. Since 2007, a 21-pound solid cedar trophy that displays replica pistols, similar to the pistols that were on the original “Piney Woods” trophy in the ‘70’s awaits the game winner. The logos from both universities are engraved on the handle of the pistols. Below are nameplates to display the outcomes of the contest for the next two decades.
The 94th edition of the Battle of the Piney Woods will be held on Saturday at 3 p.m. inside NRG Stadium — the 10th year the rivalry has been played at the home of the Houston Texans.