Hogs To Experience Version of ‘National Super Conference’ Saturday

By Jim Harris

As far back as the 1960s there were calls for major college football teams to band together, exit the NCAA as we knew it, forget the little programs trying to compete with them, and form a “super conference” of programs, something akin to a college football version of pro football. This idea was initiated, even in the 1960s, by fans and sportswriters wanting college football to determine a true national champion, rather than settled by subjective polls, and employing something like an NFL playoff system at season’s end.

Colleges were only playing a maximum 10-game regular season in the ‘60s before the bowl season, then added another game starting in 1970s, and eventually by the 2000s made 12-game regular seasons the norm. Still no “super conference” existed from coast-to-coast among the powerful conferences. Still the same cannon fodder of smaller programs were slotted into every powerhouse program’s schedule to fill many of those 12 games, which featured less than a handful of honest, big-time matchups each season per league. Only in 2014 did we begin to see the NCAA move to a four-team post-season playoff to determine a champion, but it was still rift with controversy and loaded with programs who ran up 12-win totals playing Group of 5 and lower-division patsies, not to mention the weak sisters in their own leagues. 

Anyway, long story short: The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 provided for Arkansas and the rest of the SEC the first glimpse of what a “super conference” schedule and season might look like. With the exception of the now-canceled second game of the original 2020 slate, at Notre Dame, no one else on Arkansas’s 2020 schedule before this summer’s rearrangement would have been part of this imagined “national super conference.” No Charleston Southern, no Nevada, no Louisiana-Monroe. Alabama won’t play the likes of FCS Western Carolina, Furman or Amherst, whoever it had planned to eat alive with its backups, right before its huge clash with Auburn, either.

This is the college version of the NFL — no cupcakes, no Football Championship Subdivision foes filling opening-game or late-season dates, no chances to rest the starters for three quarters before a big game the next week. (Unlike the NFL, though, the best teams in the SEC won’t be able to rest the regulars at season’s end if they’ve clinched their divisions early; you can’t afford a slip-up because the playoffs, if they happen, are still going to take the nation’s top four chosen teams.)

The goal in 2020 for the likes of Georgia, Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Florida and the more talented programs in the SEC will be this: Get to Atlanta for the Dec. 19 league championship game. That’s your season. Who knows if we’ll even get that far with COVID-19 around. Keep your fingers crossed.

For Arkansas, which somehow still lost to two patsies each year under Chad Morris before he was canned, game one Saturday isn’t against Nevada, which wasn’t going to be a pushover anyway and likely would have tested these Hogs to the finish under new head coach Sam Pittman. Instead, before 17,000 instead of 71,000 in Reynolds Razorback Stadium, it’s a game right out of the gate with nationally No. 4-ranked Georgia, the three-time SEC East champion, favored on that side again, hoping for a shot like the Bulldogs had in the 2018 season to play for a national title. 

Georgia wasn’t even on the original 2020 schedule. The SEC, in its attempt for what it claimed would be “fair and balanced” rescheduling to come up with 10 games for each SEC team against each other, saddled the Hogs with Georgia AND Florida, Nos. 1 and 2 for the prognosticators in the SEC-East, to go along with what was already a difficult slate for the worst team in the SEC for two years. The NFL at least lets its horrible teams work back to respectability with easier schedules than the previous year’s better teams. 

The rest of the SEC West is already proven to be a murderer’s row for Arkansas for going on three years, and the West has clearly been better than the East side for several seasons now. Throw in the improving the East’s Tennessee Vols, who appeared to be coming together under third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt after hitting rock bottom to open last season, along with every-year East foe Missouri, who Arkansas historically can only rarely beat no matter how good the Hogs are. This is not to say that Arkansas would have gotten any real breaks, or achieved any wins, if the schedule had included Kentucky, South Carolina or Vanderbilt. Vandy ran all over the first team Morris put on the field two seasons ago, and the Hogs blew one of the rare chances to end thhe ever-growing SEC losing streak last year at Lexington, Ky., in a loss to the Wildcats. Arkansas at one time had a decent edge over South Carolina, which used to be the Hogs’ every-year-East-opponent, until Bret Bielema showed up in Fayetteville and started out losing to the Gamecocks 52-7. 

No, this is a real sampling of the big time, folks. Ten games, all against league foes, with seven of the opponents starting the year in the Top 25. And, when you’re at the bottom of the league looking up, everybody is a challenge, even the Mississippi schools, which seemed to be the bottom that the Hogs tried to stay above in the West. Arkansas is serving as everybody’s breather, for the time being. The Hogs have become the old Southwest Conference’s Rice of the 1970s-80s. This wasn’t what Frank Broyles envisioned when he moved Arkansas from the dying SWC over to the SEC some 30 years ago, but we’re now seeing what “super conference” football really would be like.

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