The college football universe has come full circle for the Arkansas Football program and its passionate fanbase. With the recent additions of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC and swirling rumors of more to follow, the college football world will look entirely different in a few short years. Depending on who you talk to, the transformation of college football is either a detriment to Arkansas or a considerable gain... there doesn’t seem to be much in between. So, let’s break it down from one perspective and keep the conversation going as we inch closer to the kickoff of the 2021 season.
First off, let’s all be thankful…
The Razorbacks are set to begin their 29th football season as a member of the Southeastern Conference in September. After many years in the Southwest Conference, Arkansas decided to make a move in 1990. At the time, Arkansas had experienced recent success under Ken Hatfield and risen to prominence in the SWC. However, the competition in the conference was declining, and a handful of schools were experiencing NCAA allegations. Frank Broyles knew it was time to transition to establish a stable future for Razorback athletics, and boy does he look like a genius now.
In 1992, the Arkansas Razorbacks and South Carolina Gamecocks played their first season in the SEC. It was a brand-new look accompanied by unfamiliar faces for the Razorbacks. Sure, Arkansas had previous matchups with a few SEC teams in bowl games and non-conference matchups, but it was unchartered water for the Hogs. Also, the geographical setup for Arkansas made very little sense compared to the members of the old Southwest Conference. But the competition and prestige of the SEC lured Arkansas into the conference, and the rest is history.
Since joining the SEC, the Razorbacks have experienced success in football with four SEC Western Division titles and a handful of prestigious bowl appearances. Additionally, the program has seen several players move on to experience success in the NFL. Ken Hamlin, Tony Ugoh, Darren McFadden, Shawn Andrews, and Hunter Henry are a few names that come to mind. Sure, there have been some bumps in the road due to poor coaching hires, but fans can argue a bright future for Arkansas football.
Now, the landscape of college football has an entirely different look and is sure to continue changing. The desire for outsiders to gain membership into prestigious conferences is generating some wacky rumors. But are they rumors? We know Texas and Oklahoma are indefinitely new members of the SEC, but this could be just the start. Clemson and Florida State are potential members, according to circulating rumors. The BIG-12 is also rumored to join forces with the PAC-12 to beat the SEC in assembling the first-ever 20-team super conference. The unlucky part in all of this is the programs that are left out in the cold. For example, Oklahoma State and their surrounding partners are sure to be frantically searching for their new home. Unaffiliated programs without a home will be a trend for many schools in the coming years as new conferences are formed. Unfortunately, not everyone will be involved in the imminent realignments and will have no place to settle. But this is not an area of concern in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Thank goodness for Frank Broyles and his consideration for the future of the Arkansas Razorbacks.
What is the immediate impact of the Oklahoma and Texas addition?
After 28 years apart, the Hogs and Horns will become conference foes once again. The teams have matched up a handful of times since Arkansas departed for the SEC, but a consistent matchup will refresh SWC homers. As for Oklahoma, the Hogs have met the Sooners only a few times. Oklahoma leads the all-time series 4-10, but many Razorback fans will reflect on the 1978 Orange Bowl as a key matchup.
It seems as if the Razorbacks play a schedule ranked in the top five for opponent strength every year. This year, Sam Pittman’s squad will play the most challenging schedule in the country for the second year in a row. So, adding two new programs from an inferior conference can’t be any worse on the gridiron. Depending on where the Hogs fall in realignment, the strength of schedule conversation should be no different with Oklahoma and Texas potentially on the schedule. The possibility of falling in line with Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, or Missouri could either strengthen existing rivalries or establish a new one.
The main area of concern amongst Hog fans seems to be recruiting. Some believe welcoming Oklahoma and Texas will set Arkansas back tremendously. Here is my question… how can it be any different than current circumstances? I think the Hogs have been behind in recruiting since 2011 when Texas A&M joined the conference. The Aggies gained the prestige of being the only school from Texas in the SEC. However, the playing field has been evened with the Texas addition and becomes increasingly interesting with Oklahoma in the mix. So, I believe it is an advantage for Arkansas, if anything.
Every major college football program in the country emphasizes Texas as a critical piece in their recruiting geography, and that is not going to change in the new look SEC. The one thing that will change is the recruiting dynamic in the years to come. Not only are conferences changing, but player opportunities are adapting as well. I fully expect NIL deals to become an intricate selling point for all coaches in power five conferences. The options for personal branding offered by a program will factor into conference affiliation and the strength of a coaching staff.
So… the Hog’s ability to attract highly rated recruits is just as strong, if not stronger, than ever before. Several elite recruits will undoubtedly decide to play at Texas schools, Oklahoma, or Alabama, but those schools can’t sign every prospect. And we all know that the star beside a name doesn’t guarantee success on the field. But, ultimately, the addition of Oklahoma and Texas boosts the prominence of the SEC and all of its existing members compared to those in rival conferences. Now, Coach Pittman has to go out and find the guys that fit his system, and I feel confident that some will choose Fayetteville over Austin, College Station, or Norman, Oklahoma.