What if? We ask this question all the time. In our jobs, in our lottery tickets, and especially in our Razorbacks. This summer, I'll be answering the what-ifs in Razorback sports. No negatives, like 'what-if Hunter Henry doesn't make the heave,' but a few fun ones and maybe some big ones, but in a fun way.
What if Arkansas stayed in the Southwest Conference?
Texas A&M, Baylor, Texas Tech, Arkansas, TCU, Texas, Rice, Houston, and SMU. 8 Texas Schools and 1 Arkansas school. The Razorbacks left for their first SEC season in 1992, while the rest of the conference petered on until the stronger members joined the Big 8 to form the Big 12 in 1996.
How might things look today if Arkansas hadn't left the SWC?
I think this might be the darkest timeline I've considered. The first question obviously would be whether the SWC would still evolve into the Big 12, and if so would Arkansas have been invited to join the new conference? It's hard to say. It's well-known Arkansas had an antagonistic relationship with many of the power players in Texas who might have been perfectly happy to force Arkansas to the side in the Big 12 merger. But Arkansas might have been a powerful enough brand that the Big 8 might have insisted on it instead of, say, Texas Tech, or perhaps they move to more than 12 teams, but that seems unlikely.
If the Razorbacks didn't get into the Big 12, the sad answer would've been Conference USA. It would be humiliating. I like to think Arkansas could've had a lot of success in the late 90's in a dying conference. You never know. And say they do end up in Conference USA. Arkansas could've been the mid-major darling like TCU or Boise State. Basically, everything about Arkansas football would be different over the last 25 years. Coaches and players who came to play in a major conference program wouldn't have come. The Hogs might be poised for a shot at the big time again with the current conference realignment trend, getting an invite to one of the major conferences over the last 5-6 years.
This is one of the biggest reasons why moving to the SEC was a brilliant move by Frank Broyles. It locked Arkansas into a stable conference for decades to come while the SWC and Big 12 has continued to cut and patch itself together. The Hogs' safest hope would have been for the SWC to have stayed together instead of creating the Big 12.
While the bulk of good seasons in both basketball and football can largely be attributed to in-state talent, there's no denying that Texas recruiting took a hit when Arkansas left for the SEC. If the Razorbacks had been able to stay in the SWC/Big 12, would Arkansas have suffered through the dry spells in the 90s? Things might have been a little better. Well, they couldn't have been worse during some of those years, for sure.
But what about today? It took a while, and there have certainly been some hiccups along the way, but Arkansas seems to have settled into a good spot in a stable conference. Arkansas is frequently thought of as a pipe dream candidate for Big 12 expansion, but it'll never happen as long as the SEC is king and the Big 12 is scrapping for bits. If Arkansas didn't start playing in the SEC in 1992, the Hogs would have likely been a part of the conference chaos of recent years. The Razorbacks would likely have been an attractive candidate for a major conference as the major school in the state. While Arkansas doesn't have a big population, it would still deliver a major footprint for the Big 12, SEC, or whoever. But it's all still scary to think about.