It took all of a few days for a curious, seemingly outlandish thing to become a reality.
Texas and Oklahoma locked hands like Thelma and Louise and drove right the hell off the cliff of the Big 12. (Subsequent landslide ensues, as it did when Arkansas fled the Southwest Conference 30 years prior.)
In the fanciful, surreal SEC expansion tale unfolding recently, many new schedules are postulated, and one keeps emerging: an SEC West that consists of five of the present seven members, with OU and UT joining up and Missouri shifting over.
The SEC East would absorb Alabama and Auburn. The gravity of this fact isn’t lost on anyone in Arkansas who remembers that Ben Cleveland and Jeremy Davis were responsible for the last points on the football field when the Hogs last beat the Crimson Tide.
Some would, of course, note that the addition of two reasonably, historically powerful football programs may not really help the Hogs. There’s plenty of room, at the infancy of this wild-assed scenario playing out, to speculate about all the rigors this new superconference will entail.
I’m going to take a more uplifting angle here.
There are six ways that SEC expansion plays to the Arkansas football program’s advantage, globally speaking.
The Artificial Rivalry with Missouri Becomes Real…
There are signs that a staid, manufactured annual bout with Mizzou could gain significant, immediate meaning.
Geography notwithstanding, the cross-division Battle Line game has been a sloppy byproduct of the conference’s prior expansion a decade-plus ago. Texas A&M’s lust to escape the Big 12 and UT’s shadow is, was, and forever will be, both understandable and transparent.
Missouri was in the sidecar. The Tigers admirably won the East twice with Gary Pinkel at the helm and continued to compete well under now-Hog defensive coordinator Barry Odom.
The Tigers, notably, own this “rivalry” thus far. The games have ranged from frustrating to boring, but there are signs of spark now that Sam Pittman and Eli Drinkwitz have one dandy back-and-forth battle behind them.
“I kind of like the rivalry we’ve got with Arkansas,” Drinkwitz said during the recent SEC Media Days.
“I don’t remember the last time they beat us, so I kind of like that one. And the Battle Line Rivalry, it’s pretty good for us. I think we’ll just keep that one right now. That’s a good one.”
A divisional shift would clearly enhance that, and at the right time. Coming off that 50-48 game last November, and with the Hogs welcoming Mizzou this fall, there’s depth and meaning coming to this game for the first time since…well, ever.
…and Bygone East Rivalries Get Rekindled
Obviously, Arkansas lost a “flex” cross-division game each year because it was tethered to an annual clash with Missouri. Now, if those two are paired in the West, the Hogs potentially see a nine-game league schedule with two East matchups.
We don’t have to be shy about admitting the fact that pushing the Alabama programs off the annual schedule looks beneficial at present. But Arkansas still needs to play those teams, and in the context of a nine-game conference slate, the Hogs would conceivably play one or the other every third year.
And to be candid, the Hogs have played the East teams more competitively over the long haul anyway. Pittman’s squad rudely bumped off Tennessee, had Missouri on its heels until late, and competed gamely against both Georgia and Florida despite the obvious talent disparities at hand.
If this nine-game slate emerges, then the Hogs will potentially see their friends from the other side more regularly. Even if the East gains aggregate strength in the aforesaid scenario, Arkansas winds up with a more balanced schedule year to year.
A “Fixed” Intra-Division Foe Wouldn’t Hurt
In the newly expanded SEC, some cross-division games might still endure from year to year. For Arkansas, its fixed battle with Missouri was one such example.
Auburn would now play Georgia annually as divisional foes; Alabama and Tennessee, long bitter foes, would do the same.
Arkansas’ newest “most likely East rival” presumably favors South Carolina again. The schools played each other every year for the first 22 seasons they were members and are joined at the proverbial hip after entering the SEC together.
And mind you, it’s been a good rivalry, too: Arkansas leads 13-10, but South Carolina steamrolled the Hogs the last three times (2012 and 2013, then 2017). Darren McFadden’s SEC-record rushing game came against the Gamecocks in 2007, and the 2011 battle in Fayetteville represented the first time the two programs faced off as Top 10 teams.
Travel Logistics for Arkansas Football Fans Improve
A reshaped SEC West means that Arkansas finally resides in a division where all foes are in contiguous states. That means fans, if public health and safety protocols permit, can be more enthusiastic about road trips.
Obviously, Arkansas fans had precious little optimism about any trip to Tuscaloosa in the last decade or so. A few times, Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium hasn’t been welcoming, either. Especially in 2016, a nightmare which turned out to be Auburn’s largest margin of victory over a ranked opponent in program history.
There’s little question that the new SEC calls for Arkansas to head to Austin, Norman and Columbia more regularly. Certainly, how this will move the win-loss needle is hard to predict.
But Arkansas fans, particularly those in the more burgeoning northwest and central parts of the state, will beat a path to all those places more readily.
The “Pod” or “Quad” Layout Isn’t Punitive
Your all new SEC’s 16-team lineup makes a four-division or “pod” scenario possible. That conceivably places the Hogs in a four-school unit with Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas.
But it might not be the only “districting” that makes sense. If Texas A&M ended up sharing a pod with Texas, Arkansas could find itself in a grouping with LSU and the Mississippi schools.
This structure is novel for college athletics. It’s also pragmatic and potentially landscape-altering.
That alone engenders interest. Consider one of the best and most regularly replayed programs on the SEC Network is the channel’s documentary surrounding the genesis of the SEC Championship Game.
In past decades, divisional play flourished once smaller conferences consolidated into larger ones. The excitement factor ratcheted upward when the SEC grew in 1991, and another seismic change like that is coming.
Anyone my age or older knows that Texas truthfully wields the big cudgel in the Texas vs. Arkansas football rivalry. It doesn’t stop us from having idyllic visions of closing the gap.
Texas fans fashionably, accurately assert that they don’t need or even want a rivalry with us. That’s predictably elitist, and yet still fair.
They also cannot deny the role Arkansas played in changing their own athletic landscape. Arkansas’ exit from the SWC triggered the slower but inevitable withering of that once iconic Southwestern Conference.
Texas didn’t have to scramble, necessarily. The Big 8 made its logical transition to the Big 12 thanks to UT leading other Southwest expats to safety. The Longhorns’ 30-year run since is a mercurial one, peaking with its 2006 Rose Bowl win over USC.
There’s symmetry, then, to this remarriage. Both Arkansas and Texas lost a degree of shine in their respective transitions. Yet they’re both blessed with financial resources to compete and now have confidence in the coaches shepherding their rebuilds. Y’all admit it: you missed ’em a little, too.
This story first appeared on BestofArkansasSports.com.