Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
This column has long leaned upon a stubborn, almost curmudgeonly position regarding the myth of conference supremacy, and more specifically what bearing it has on the fate of Arkansas athletics generally.
The Southeastern Conference is really super good at sports overall. No more, no less. It was ludicrous to extrapolate some kind of higher meaning from the league's string of BCS titles. It was similarly not too prudent to draw any dramatic conclusions from the league's alleged deficiencies in men's basketball that persisted for a few years.
Arkansas baseball just suffered its worst overall season in the Dave Van Horn era, losing every game in May and ending up below .500 after a promising jaunt through some pretty staunch nonconference opposition. The conference schedule got the best of the Hogs, but was it genuinely because the broad-based quality of the SEC presented substantially tougher obstacles? Hard to figure.
Four of the eight "national seeds" in NCAA Super Regional play hailed from the conference. Mississippi State and LSU choked away their shots at Omaha in two games, Texas A&M went out in three and Florida survived only after being blanked in its opening game with Florida State. This came on the heels of Vanderbilt and Ole Miss flaming out early.
The upshot of all of this is that regular season performance in any sport truly cannot elicit much from a postseason perspective. The conference tournaments or championship games take a lot out of teams potentially, and success there can in fact doom a team to failure in the larger picture. It's true in other power leagues, too, where even lower-tier squads are capable of winning enough to be disruptive to a team's mojo.
Arkansas, therefore, cannot glean much from being the cellar-dweller in this strange, pitching-poor season. The SEC was indeed a vicious league, as it always is, on the diamond. But nobody can lay the blame there for a bad year. And the same is true in football, where the excuse has been particularly and dishonestly employed, most notably by the likes of Houston Nutt, who often lamented the strength of schedule as the impediment to his predestined greatness.
It's not enough for Bret Bielema, Van Horn, Mike Anderson, Jimmy Dykes, et al. to deflect anymore, to say that they all start behind an eight-ball from the outset. The league is hard but it is also balanced. Its collective power is a product of its financial resources and nationwide, if not global, exposure. But it isn't unique, either. The power brokers of the Big 12, Pac 12, Big Ten and elsewhere believe that they can stake the same claim to superiority, and not without merit or support.
Arkansas is a beneficiary of the conference's reputation and is also a victim of it. The programs that have been the wealthiest haven't necessarily been those that won the most or racked up the most accolades. The Hogs' best basketball team of the current century wasn't demonstrably more attractive to fans, based on attendance numbers; one of the Razorbacks' most memorable runs to Omaha on the baseball field (2009) was by a team that had a losing league record. Being in a vigorously competitive conference is virtuous and damning, and it's hard to project which fate will befall which team.
All of this is said for one reason: to not draw much from the preseason football projections that alternatively say Arkansas lost too much offensive skill to compete for a title this year or that the Hogs will be too overwhelmed by the schedule, you know, the one that basically changes very little from year to year save for venues and directional designations for out-of-conference teams.
The Hogs will be as capable of faltering against Toledo as they are of beating Ole Miss. Because of the nature of sports and the fallibility of projecting how individuals of that age will come around and when, the fall will be as wildly volatile as spring. Nobody likely thought that Arkansas baseball would slog to a 7-23 SEC record even gauging the league as a whole. Nobody likely projected Arkansas to win eight football games after three straight losses in September, either. The key for the average fan is to remember that as "tough" as the SEC may appear to be, that's a reputation constructed on utter subjectivity all the way.