When earlier in the week Arkansas came out and, for no apparent reason, publicly reaffirmed its commitment to the SEC, the easy response was one of laughter. After all, who the hell really thought Arkansas was leaving in the first place? Exactly what legitimate fears were there to assuage with a press release? The whole thing was a tad bit unusual and unexpected, to put it mildly.
But seriously, we'll give this one the ol' college analysis, is it really a legitimate possibility that Arkansas could leave the SEC? The short answer is probably no, but admittedly that conclusion is a bit muddled and all of the individual factors in question do not necessarily point in the same direction. It probably will not happen, but with that in mind it's not an unthinkable possibility by any stretch of the imagination.
To begin with, let me be perfectly clear, the Hogs will most likely remain in the SEC when all is said and done. Texas, considered by many Arkansas fans to be their major rival, effectively runs the Big X with an iron fist, and frankly the Hogs will likely have to take a pay cut to leave the SEC. Those two things alone, which is to say nothing of the natural inertia against the drastic upheaval that would be required to switch conferences, will likely keep the Hogs in the SEC. And, of course, as of right now no one is going to be rationally gung-ho to jump aboard the Big X ship.
On the other hand, though, things admittedly do get a bit complicated when you delve deeply into this question, for a variety of reasons. And, believe it or not, you can come up with many reasons why Arkansas would be interested in leaving the SEC and joining the Big X.
First and foremost, of course, you have the reality that even after almost twenty years in the SEC, Arkansas is still regarded by most as somewhat of an outsider and is still a program with no real natural rivalries within its own conference. Oh sure we've tried to create some, but it has not really taken and realistically rivalries must organically create themselves. With the Big X, of course, Arkansas is at home with traditional rivals Texas and Texas A&M.
Furthermore, many of the other concerns could be at least somewhat ameliorated.
Yes the Hogs probably would have to take a slight pay cut by joining the Big X, but Arkansas -- with their status as the only major program in a state of roughly three million people, a good-sized fan base, big money boosters (i.e. Wal-Mart, Tyson Chicken, Jerry Jones, plus some oil money), and competitive programs in all three major sports -- would undoubtedly provide value to the Big X and accordingly command a fairly large piece of the revenue pie. They probably wouldn't get as much as Texas, Texas A&M, or Oklahoma, but they would almost certainly get more than any other Big X school, and the end dollar amount would probably be fairly comparable with their expected SEC payout.
And beyond that, perhaps Texas ruling the Big X with an iron fist wouldn't be the strong impediment that many anticipate. After all, Arkansas spent over 75 years together with Texas in the Southwest Conference, so they are nothing if not acclimated to the notion of following the Longhorn lead. And besides, sure, Texas would run the show if Arkansas moved back to the Big X, but could someone explain to me exactly what real power the Hogs have in the SEC? In reality it's probably more of a wash; Arkansas will likely have little political power moving forward regardless of whether or not they stay in the SEC or go to the Big X. They will be a follower in both conferences, not a leader.
Moreover, as an additional point, moving to the Big X could have a very positive recruiting impact for Arkansas, not a small point when considering the Hogs have never been anything more than a mediocre recruiting power in the SEC that has always struggled on the field against the recruiting elites. Fayetteville itself is all of about fifteen miles from the Oklahoma state line and the state of Arkansas shares a border with Texas. Moving back home, so to speak, and joining the Big X would make recruiting those areas easier and could make the Hogs more of a recruiting power.
Besides, looking beyond the income statements and balance sheets, the SEC has been far from kind to the Hogs. The money is good, of course, but the on-field success has seen a marked decline. Arkansas has yet to win a single conference championship in almost twenty years in the SEC, and frankly they have struggled just to get to Atlanta, with them in most years fighting for a third-at-best finish in the SEC West. Aside from championships, though, it doesn't take a particularly thorough perusal of the Arkansas historical record to realize they have not had the same level of on-field success since joining the SEC. Even the basketball program has seen a major drop-off from the glory days of "40 Minutes of Hell."
Now, moving to the other side, on the Big X end of things, what must be understood is that moving forward the conference will always be under intense pressure to go back to a twelve-team format and re-institute a conference championship game.
On the expansion front, we see this taking place already, even though we are only four days removed from the seemingly guaranteed implosion of the Big XII. Yesterday, a bi-partisan coalition of Texas politicians sent a public letter to the Big X urging them to add Houston as a member:
"For years, UH has served as the academic cornerstone of a burgeoning metropolis known for its nexus to state, national, and global commerce and culture. UH is the third largest university in Texas, and is on track to rank among the top research universities in this state. Despite UH’s local and statewide prominence, the university does not belong to a strong BCS conference such as the Big 12. The Cougars, the City of Houston, and the State of Texas deserve better."
Now, I'm not seriously contending that Houston will be given an invitation to join the Big X, mind you, but the point remains that such pressure to expand the conference is inevitable and interested parties will push them in that direction. It does not take a starry-eyed dreamer to see similar support coming from schools the likes of TCU, SMU, and others. For better or for worse, most people tend to see twelve as being the magical number -- a notion that even the Big Ten has apparently come around to in recent days -- and as long as the Big X remains, well, the Big X, there will be a push to expand.
Furthermore, with regard to a conference championship game, as long as the SEC, the Big Ten, the Pac-12, and the ACC can have conference championship games, combined with the old Big XII's more than decade-long run with a conference championship game, there will always be significant factions vehemently pushing for the Big X to re-institute a conference championship game, and furthermore to do that expansion is likely a must (yet another pressure point for renewed expansion). People like Mack Brown and Bob Stoops may loathe the notion of a conference championship game, but a hell of a lot of people take the opposite position.
Moreover, football issues notwithstanding, other parties will naturally push for the conference championship game to be re-instituted for monetary considerations. As long as a conference championship game remains a potential cash cow, several interested parties will vehemently maneuver to have that game brought back for purely financial reasons.
Need a concrete example of one of those interested parties? Fair enough... Jerry Jones. He has largely been at the center of the Arkansas rumors, and it's easy to see why. With the out-of-this-world Cowboys Stadium now in place, Jones' football home was destined to host the Big XII Championship Game for decades to come, a deal that could have brought him a few hundred million in revenue. And now, of course, with the Big X, that money is never going to materialize. You don't think, given that incentive, that someone like Jones would use every single bit of their power to try to push for expansion and to re-institute a conference championship game?
And so we have it. Arkansas will probably remain in the SEC, but realistically there are valid reasons as to why leaving for the Big X would make sense, and it remains a virtual certainty that the Big X will remain under constant pressure to expand back to twelve teams and re-institute the conference championship game. And, frankly, if the Big X does choose to expand, there is almost no doubt that the Razorbacks will be target number one. All told, it's probably unlikely to happen at the moment, but it's far from an unfathomable possibility. Moving forward a few years, anything can happen.