Liberty Bowl Stakes Are Higher in Dying Light of the Hogs-to-Big 12 Debate

Arkansas vs Kansas, Liberty Bowl
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics / Kansas Athletics

Whenever Arkansas falls short of season expectations, many Hog fans ask the tired, but inevitable, question “Why aren’t we in the Big 12?” Of course, it’s a moot conversation because it’s never going to happen. The Big 12 may not even be around long enough for it to be a future consideration.

However, it can’t be denied that Fayetteville is closer geographically to most schools in the Big 12 and almost every Hog fan thinks that Arkansas’ ability to compete in the SEC means it would rank at the top of the Big 12 every year because it would get to play perennial whipping boys like, well….Kansas.

To be fair, the Hogs have played pretty well against Big 12 opponents in bowl games.  Arkansas has beaten Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl and the Cotton Bowl in recent years and has beaten Texas more times than they’ve lost to them since joining the SEC.

An Arkansas vs Kansas Matchup

As fate would have it, Arkansas fans now have the chance to put their money where their mouth is, again. Although it would have been best to play Oklahoma in the Liberty Bowl, the Hogs instead got Kansas, known to most as a basketball school.

In fact, a common joke among Kansas fans about Kansas football is that the most exciting thing that happens at KU football games is when the Jumbotron finds a KU basketball player in the stands. This is what you get when you fail to convert on critical short-yardage plays, even if you have three offensive linemen who can claim some level of All-SEC acclaim.      

I shudder to imagine the fan response to a loss in Memphis on Dec. 28. Arkansas fans should expect to win, but nothing is guaranteed and several key players have opted out, including first-team All-SEC center Ricky Stromberg, who will be prepping for the NFL Draft. (And, frankly, given the fact that the Hogs had difficulty moving the pile at critical times this season, it also remains to be seen whether the 15 writers who decided the AP All-SEC teams — which also included Beaux Limmer and Dalton Wagner — are delusional, but I digress.)

No matter who plays, the Razorbacks have a potential problem brewing. Why? Sometimes the Jayhawks are dangerous enough to cause real problems, like when they sacked Iowa State’s QB at least 4 times in their 14-11 win over the Cyclones (although Kansas finished tied at No. 79 in sacks nationally).

The fact is, Kansas is a lot like Arkansas. Despite a few games and a few key players in Drew Sanders, Bumper Pool and maybe Myles Slusher, overall, the Hogs were not good on defense this year and Barry Odom is no longer the defensive coordinator, which may or may not be a good thing. What’s worse is that Pool, Slusher and Sanders — a first-team All-SEC linebacker with 9.5 sacks (second in the SEC) — will not be available for the game.  

The good news for Arkansas is that Kansas ranked 121st nationally in total defense. That is the kind of paltry, weak defense you expect from a Big 12 team.

Don’t throw stones. Arkansas is 123rd. Knowing this, if it weren’t a moot point, an argument exists that the Razorbacks are simply a Big 12 team playing in the SEC. It’s not a strong argument, but it is at least worth considering.

Impact of the Liberty Bowl

The most important thing to ponder in this debate is what we hear from the majority of recruits when they commit or sign. Almost to a player, Arkansas recruits say, “I want to play in the SEC.”

With that in mind, Arkansas football fans should ask themselves, “Would we have as much talent on campus if we played in the Big 12?”  

For me, the answer to that is a resounding “No.” In other words, Arkansas would recruit to the talent level of the Big 12, so even a win in the Liberty Bowl against a Big 12 bottom feeder like Kansas won’t answer that question. However, a loss would be devastating to all Razorback lovers who are happy their team has shown, at times, that it belongs in the SEC.  

A win would produce some warm fuzzies for putting another bowl trophy in the Broyles Center. Nothing at the level of beating, say, a Penn State or Texas, but enough to ring in the new year with far more than a modicum of hope.

A loss, on the other hand, would most certainly cast doubt on the program even though it’s missing so many quality players. Consistently beating inferior teams, whether because they are not as talented (see: Liberty) or not playing as well (see: Texas A&M) is a must for Arkansas football to reach the minimum eight-win level of success that fans now expect from Pittman based on last year. 

Losing two such games in a season is bad enough, but losing three is entering the danger zone. Kansas represents the exact sort of team Arkansas should handle, and for that reason success in Memphis is a must for the future of this program.


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