Life in the SEC isn’t easy, but it could get ever so slightly less difficult for Arkansas football in the future depending on which scheduling format the conference chooses moving forward.
The addition of Oklahoma and Texas is forcing the SEC to reassess its scheduling and the only thing set in stone so far is a temporary 2024 slate that will essentially buy more time for the conference to solidify a schedule for 2025 and beyond.
It’s not yet known if the 16 schools will decide to keep the current eight-game conference slates or follow the Big Ten’s lead by expanding to nine games.
What the league has decided so far is that divisions will go away, allowing its members to face off on the gridiron more frequently. In fact, the formats for both scenarios — eight or nine games — involve each team playing the other 15 at least twice (home and home) over a four-year period.
In an eight-game schedule, that’d mean having one permanent opponent and rotating the other 14. If there were nine SEC games, there’d be three permanent opponents with the other 12 rotating.
Each format has its pros and cons involving annual rivalries and bowl eligibility, but those have been thoroughly discussed and debated by now. Instead, Best of Arkansas Sports decided to take a closer look at how the changes will specifically impact Arkansas football.
Relief for Arkansas Football with 8 SEC Games?
As a member of the SEC West, Arkansas football has grown accustomed to playing one of toughest schedules in the country. That is once again the case in 2023, as ESPN ranks its slate as the sixth-toughest.
There’s a chance the Razorbacks will still rank high on those lists, but if the temporary 2024 schedule is any indication, they could be in for a reprieve.
For the first time since joining the SEC, Arkansas will not play Alabama. The rest of the current division is still on the schedule, as well as Missouri and Tennessee from the East and newcomer Texas. That means it also avoids Georgia.
Of course, if the eight-game schedule sticks and the 2024 schedule happens every other year, the Razorbacks would face Alabama and Georgia in the odd-numbered years, along with Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Oklahoma.
Missouri would also be on the schedule as Arkansas’ one permanent foe. (Like it or not, the SEC is going to treat the Battle Line Rivalry as a legitimate rivalry.)
Is that any easier than what the Razorbacks currently have to navigate, though? Some numbers crunching seems to indicate it is.
Over an eight-year period, they’d face Missouri eight times, rotating home and away, and everyone else four times — twice at home and twice on the road.
To compare that to the current system, Best of Arkansas Sports utilized Sports Reference’s “Simple Rating System,” which takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule to spit out a rating denominated in points above or below average, with zero being average.
Had the eight-game format with Oklahoma and Texas been in place from 2015-22, Arkansas’ eight opponents each year would have had an average SRS of 9.26. That is more than a point lower than the opponents they actually faced over that time, which had an average SRS of 10.62.
|Year||Actual Average SRS||Hypothetical Average SRS|
That’s a quantitative way to look at the difference, but the basic eye test would also tell you it’d work out in Arkansas’ favor.
College Football Playoff Possibility?
Take the 2021 season, for instance. That year, the Razorbacks had the second-toughest schedule in the country, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, and still managed to go 9-4.
They had to go on the road to play both Alabama and Georgia — the two teams that met in that year’s SEC and national championship games. Those were two of Arkansas’ losses, with the others being a one-point loss at Ole Miss and a disappointing home loss to Auburn.
Had the 2024 schedule been in place, the Razorbacks would have played Tennessee and Texas instead of Alabama and Georgia. We already know they would have beaten the Longhorns, as that was a non-conference matchup that year, and they probably would have had a much better chance to beat the Volunteers than the Crimson Tide or Bulldogs.
Win that game and Arkansas is suddenly looking at a 10-2 regular-season record that would likely be good enough to earn a spot in a 12-team playoff, which is also set to begin in 2024.
Of course, if that season happened to fall in the other rotation, the Razorbacks would have still faced Alabama and Georgia, as well as very good Oklahoma and Kentucky teams that won double-digit games, but the rest of the slate would have been manageable: Missouri, South Carolina, Florida and Vanderbilt. Worst-case scenario, they’d still go 8-4 against that schedule.
The Challenge of Nine Games
Of course, that all goes out the window if the SEC — as many expect it will — goes to a nine-game conference schedule.
No math is needed to know that adding another game against a team from the best conference in the country would make things more difficult for Arkansas.
In that scenario, the Razorbacks are widely expected to get Missouri, Ole Miss and Texas as their permanent foes, with the other 12 teams rotating for the remaining six games.
Exactly how much more difficult that schedule is depends on what kind of policy the SEC adopts regarding the three non-conference games each team plays.
Currently, teams are required to schedule at least one non-conference game against a Power Five opponent or a comparable independent (Notre Dame, BYU). That will remain a requirement in 2024, but would it stick around if the SEC goes to nine games? Or could that be a negotiating chip to get everyone on board?
Teams like Florida (Florida State), Georgia (Georgia Tech), South Carolina (Clemson) and Kentucky (Louisville) have in-state ACC rivals they’d likely continue to play, but teams like Vanderbilt, Missouri, Mississippi State and, yes, Arkansas might not want to schedule such an opponent if it’s already facing nine SEC teams.
The other question is whether or not the SEC would attempt to prohibit games against FCS opponents. The Big Ten tried that about a decade ago, but abandoned the policy when no one else followed suit and it became difficult for some teams to fill out schedules.
It seems unlikely the SEC would do that, plus the guarantee checks those schools receive are important to the overall college football ecosystem, so the three non-conference games would likely be against one FCS and two Group of Five teams or one FCS, one Group of Five and one Power Five team.
Either way, a 9-game SEC slate means it will become harder for Arkansas football to push for a playoff spot in good years and a bowl bid in down years.
For a contrarian viewpoint, consider Nate Olson’s piece below, in which he points out that in the SEC brand will “only help the Texas Longhorns garner even more respect, especially nationally, than Arkansas and Texas football’s recruiting stock will skyrocket. Steve Sarkisian can certainly find a way to foul it up like others have. But that isn’t a chance Arkansas should take lightly.
For Arkansas, playing Texas football every year as the level it is now would be an OK proposition, but the Hogs can’t compete with Oklahoma … yet. And OU would only be stronger in the SEC, too.
Maybe if Auburn and Alabama were moved to the East, and OU and Texas replaced them in the West, it would be a little better for the Hogs.”
What Olson doesn’t mention is how much worse a 9-game SEC schedule would be for SEC teams than an 8-game conference schedule, as the above numbers and common sense indicate.
For the rest of Olson’s 2021 column, click here:
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