For some time, the SEC has had a special appeal when it comes to baseball. Its large crowds, raucous rivalry environments, and elite talent have established it as America's premier college baseball conference.
It lured the Big 12’s Texas A&M and Missouri in 2012, and might just turn the Big 12, now composed of ten schools, into the Big 8. Both Texas and Oklahoma have reportedly all but sealed their moves to the SEC, with the Houston Chronicle breaking the news on July 21.
This is groundbreaking, considering those two programs were founding members of the Big 12 and have made up the backbone of the conference for quite some time.
Baseball-wise, the rich will get richer. By adding these two programs, Texas being the more notable of the two, the SEC will now have four of the eight teams from the 2021 College World Series and five of the top six teams in RPI at the end of this past season.
One big positive in the new conference realignment is the renewed rivalries that come along with it.
Arkansas versus Texas highlights that category, considering the two were such bitter rivals for many years in the old Southwest Conference. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that both the Razorbacks and Horns are almost always in contention for a spot in Omaha.
To get an idea of quality of the rivalry, look no further than the incident at the 1985 College World Series in which Texas fans roasted a pig prior to the Longhorns’ contest against Arkansas, and then paraded the charred head around the stadium, taunting the Razorback crowd. Needless to say, the rivalry was heated.
“Fortunately, [that incident] didn’t cause a riot,” Jesse Cuevas, the head groundskeeper at Rosenblatt Stadium told Collegiate Baseball. “It became crystal clear to me what college rivalries were all about when I watched this unfold.”
Texas will also resume its involvement in one of the Lone Star State’s biggest rivalries against Texas A&M. The two have played in midweek games in recent years, A&M having won the last two meetings. But to play a weekend series, and a conference weekend series at that, would elevate the rivalry back to its original form, when the two shared membership in the SWC and Big 12, and fans circled the series on their calendars as a “must-see”.
“When you play as many non-conference games as we both have, to have [the game] where it is, it kind of gets the juices flowing,” former Texas A&M head coach Rob Childress told The Battalion prior to facing Texas in March of 2021 . “There's not going to be any loss of intensity on Tuesday, I can assure you of that on both sides.”
And the intensity will only ramp up with conference standing implications on the line.
At the same time, Oklahoma will lose its biggest weekend rivalry series against Oklahoma State, who won’t be joining the SEC. Sure, it will probably be scheduled as a midweek or perhaps even an early-season non-conference weekend series, but it won’t have the same effect as a conference series played late in the year.
The Sooners will have a chance to resume their century-old rivalry with Missouri, and while it tends to have more weight on the gridiron, the two schools have been playing each other for 109 years starting in 1912. Oklahoma won that first meeting, 2-1, and since then, the opponents have played 262 times, the Sooners holding a 153-110 advantage. Recently, they played at the Frisco Classic in March for just the second time since Mizzou joined the SEC. Oklahoma won that one too, by a score of 16-6. The last time a contest between the Sooners and Tigers was contested on either school’s campus came in April of 2012, in a three-game series in Norman.
In other words, Oklahoma and Missouri have some history together.
Aside from the renewed rivalries, conference realignment will bring about something else: a new SEC pecking order. And wow, is that a tough list to try to put together. Even “elite” programs end up getting put in the bottom half of the conference.
With that said, something becomes very clear. Despite being competitive programs year in and year out in the Big 12, both the Longhorns and Sooners are sure to be in for a shock upon arrival to the SEC.
Not only are there no “easy” weekends--even the last place teams in the division standings tend to be more competitive than a large number of the other “power conference” squads--but the result of one or two bad weekends can severely hamper a team’s SEC tournament seeding and NCAA tournament opportunities.
So where do Texas and Oklahoma end up in the pecking order of an already-stacked conference now featuring 16 teams?
Well, it seems disrespectful not to give the No. 1 nod to Mississippi State, the reigning national champions who have reached Omaha in three of the last four years. But Arkansas and Vanderbilt, with perennial pitching, are knotted at the top as well. Unlike many other conferences, there is a consistency in the SEC. You know what you are getting year in and year out. The level of talent in these programs never wavers.
Florida, Ole Miss, Tennessee, South Carolina and LSU are just behind those three, with a high level of talent, but not the same kind of consistency. I expect that is where Texas will be, at least in its first few seasons as an SEC school. The Longhorns have looked extremely good for many of the past several seasons but have not been quite at the level of the SEC’s top-tier programs.
Texas has a history of up-and-down years, and even this season, in peak form, went 5-6 against SEC opponents. Granted, the Horns’ 0-3 performance at the Globe Life Field showdown can be attributed to the winter storm taking place in Texas during that week, first weekend of the season jitters, or Pete Hansen not being up to speed. The fact they barely competed with Mississippi State, Arkansas and Ole Miss is definitely a concern for many, considering that is the kind of opponent Texas will face week in, week out.
Oklahoma appears, at least right now, as if it will end up in the bottom half of the SEC pecking order, with programs such as Missouri, Kentucky, and Alabama. The Sooners are a consistent hitting group, having brought sluggers Tyler Hardman (Big 12-leading .397 BA in 2021), Steele Walker (46th overall draft pick in 2018), and Brandon Zaragoza (17th in Sooner history for career hits, 230) through the program in recent years.
However, the pitching has been very weak, as was reflected by a 5.84 team ERA this past season, which ranked as the worst in the Big 12.
That will be a major challenge for the Sooners in the SEC, and until that area of the roster improves, specifically the starting pitching, Oklahoma will likely struggle. Also keep in mind that the bottom half of the SEC is still full of talent, and that the competition is fierce, no matter where you lie in the standings.
Pecking order aside, one thing is certain. For both Oklahoma and Texas, the move to the SEC will not take place without a transition period, as the teams attempt to get used to the new competition and ballparks.
Texas A&M is a good example of the path the two programs may take in their early years of SEC affiliation. During the Aggies' first season in the SEC, 2013, Rob Childress’ squad finished 6th in the West with a 13-16 conference record. A fifth-place West finish and a 14-16 record the following year gave way to a second-place showing in the West in 2016, as the Aggies also reached a Super Regional.
Texas will be more ready to take on the challenge of the SEC than Oklahoma, but based on the incredible depth throughout the conference each year, both teams cannot be expected to replicate their recent Big 12 season performances in the SEC.
The SEC is just that deep.