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As we wait for the final details of Texas A&M’s move to the SEC to be complete — a move that will cement Mike Slive’s legacy as one of the greatest conference commissioners of all time — Dan Beebe and the Big 12 are floating big time names as A&M’s replacement. Give the conference credit, it’s attempting a haymaker in response to the SEC’s raid. The Big 12 is wooing Notre Dame and Arkansas. I don’t believe either school will join the Big 12 because the conference’s future remains all too tied to the whims and proclivities of Texas, but I am fascinated by the Big 12’s pursuit of Arkansas. Why? Because it’s an attempt at Civil War between the SEC and the Big 12. That’s what multiple SEC officials told me, anyway, that they wonder whether the Big 12 might want Arkansas so bad that they’re willing to make a pretty intriguing offer that we haven’t seen before.
Namely this one — Arkansas would get all the buyout money that A&M will owe the Big 12 for moving to the SEC.
How much money are we talking about?
Around $15 million.
Could that financial sweetener be dangled out there as a reason for the Razorbacks to leave behind the SEC? It very well may be. Such an offer, which would be paired with additional financial guarantees that would place Arkansas in the top tier of the conference, would also serve as a message to the rest of the country that the Big 12 won’t sit idly by and allow its programs to be plucked one by one by larger conferences. Wooing away Arkansas isn’t just an attempt to stave off the SEC, it’s an attempt to prove that the Big 12 can compete with the other major conferences.
Yep, the Big 12 might be willing to make it rain on Fayetteville.
Keep in mind that there is no similar liquidated damages clause in the SEC’s member bylaws. In fact, there is no withdrawal penalty at all — and only a $50 yearly dues.
The move makes sense competitively since Arkansas would be the third best Big 12 program after Texas and Oklahoma. Where does Arkansas rank right now in the SEC with A&M is coming to the conference? No better than 8th, right? Behind LSU, Alabama, and Auburn in the SEC West and behind Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida in the SEC East. I’d also put it behind A&M. So that slots Arkansas in at 8th best program in the 13 team SEC. Before all you Arkansas people start emailing me — and you’re going to email anyway — I’ve already praised your school’s recent hiring decisions. In fact, I’d argue that the combination of Bobby Petrino and Mike Anderson is the best footbal-basketbal head coaching duo in the SEC today. So Arkanas has stepped up its game since joining the SEC.
The reality is every school, no matter its history, is only as good as the head coach. But head coaches are going to come and go. Over time Arkansas, a small state with a limited internal recruiting base, is not going to perform on the same level as the SEC’s behemoths. That doesn’t mean that Arkansas can’t win the SEC or even contend for a national title — it clearly can — just that over time it is not going to be an SEC leviathan. Deep down Arkansas fans know this, it’s why they react so angrily when their program is ranked in comparison with other SEC schools. It’s why Arkansas fans have always felt a bit slighted in the SEC. The Razorbacks believe there’s a big gulf between it and South Carolina, the Mississippi schools, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt. The reality is, there hasn’t been much of a gulf in nearly twenty years of Arkansas in the SEC.
No one else is leaving the SEC — and I still don’t think Arkansas will — but the Razorbacks are the only school other than Vanderbilt that would consider a departure. (I don’t believe Vanderbilt will ever leave the SEC either, but if the league expands to include 15 state schools and Vandy, the disconnect between the Commodores and the rest of the conference will grow. Hell, I’ll even argue that the rest of the SEC needs Vandy because the Commodores help to paper over, at least a bit, the argument that all the SEC cares about is sports. Concerns like these are why Duke and North Carolina to the SEC makes a lot more sense than most of you know).
So could the Big 12 strike back at the SEC by snagging away Arkansas with a promise of the A&M payout money and an easier path to the BCS? The Big 12 is going to certainly try.
And let’s put it this way, how often do you think Texas, Oklahoma, or Arkansas would win the Big 12? At least 90% of the seasons, right? Right now, with Arkansas rolling under Petrino, could the Razorbacks win the Big 12, avoid the conference title game, and glide into the BCS title game once or twice in the next five years? I think so. And even if you come in second in the Big 12, a pathway to consistent nine victory seasons is pretty easy to see. Get to 10-2 and a school like Arkansas — that travels well and is close to an expanding BCS which will soon include the Cotton Bowl — may have a good shot at a second BCS bid from the Big 12. If the Big 12 wanted to really sweeten the pie, it could even allow schools to keep a huge percentage of the revenue from a BCS berth rather than sharing the money conference wide as the SEC schools do. (Indeed, the Big 12 already has a skewed money distribution system that favors the big schools).
So the argument that Arkansas football could be in a better place competitively is actually pretty fascinating. Compelling, even. (None of this even considers basketball, which is a secondary concern. But Arkansas under Mike Anderson will win and Big 12 basketball will be at least as good as the SEC on average). Throw in the financial incentives and the money could end up an even race over the next decade or more. But here’s the rub, what if the Big 12 eventually implodes like we all expect, where would the Razorbacks end up in that scenario?
The fallout would be bleak.
The SEC, spurned as it would be, is unlikely to extend a hand back into the conference. The Big Ten would turn up its nose at Arkansas’ academics. The Pac 12 might extend a hand, but the travel and cultural fit with the West Coast would be a tremendous challenge. The Big East, assuming it survives, would take Arkansas, but it would be one hell of a trip as well. And as I’ve already written, who survives between the Big East and the ACC is an open question. If the ACC survives, the Razorbacks would beg for a slot. Whether that offer would be forthcoming or not is uncertain.
So would the Razorbacks be willing to accept greater financial gain and competitive position in exchange for the risk of the Big 12’s future?
That seems unlikely, but the Big 12 is trying its damnedest to make Arkansas happen and some SEC officials feel a Civil War could be in the offing.
What if, after all this, Texas A&M and Arkansas just switched places?
OKTC has been all over the SEC’s pursuit of Texas A&M and its resulting impact on conference expansion across football. Here are those articles which will keep you better informed than any other site: