With the move of Texas A&M to the SEC now looking like a reality, it is worthwhile to discuss the likely consequences for the Big 12 and the other major conferences. Big Ten fans tend to jump immediately to the question of what our own league will do, but the question is premature. The dominoes are destined to fall in a particular order, with each leading to predictable consequences.
I. Will Texas politicians really let the Aggies move?
For those who wanted the Big 12 to survive, this was always their ace in the hole: Texas politicians wouldn’t allow Texas and Texas A&M to split up, mainly to protect Texas Tech and Baylor, and to keep SEC recruiters out of their state.
But Texas A&M has Gov. Rick Perry in their corner. Perry is well liked in the state, and he is as passionate an Aggie as they come. If he thinks the move is best for the Aggies, it is doubtful that any other Texas politician will cross him. It is also doubtful that the A&M Board of Regents would have the issue on the agenda of their Monday meeting, if they weren’t positive that they have the political cover to make it happen.
After flirting with the SEC two years in a row, if A&M doesn’t move now, it will be an emasculating show of weakness that they won’t live down for many years to come.
II. What Does Oklahoma Do?
After the Texas A&M move is announced, Oklahoma will be on the clock. Publicly, the Sooners remain committed to the Big 12. Privately, that simply cannot be true. Even now, the Big 12 has only the fourth-best TV contract of the major conferences. The conferences ahead of it are continuing to add value, while the Big 12 withers.
It can’t sit well with Oklahoma that Nebraska, Colorado, and now Texas A&M have bolted to greener pastures, while they are stuck in what will quickly become a second-tier league. There are institutions that would welcome an invitation to the Big 12 — commissioner Dan Beebe has mentioned Houston. But no one except Beebe could possibly think that the Cougars are as good a draw as the Aggies.
Oklahoma also faces the same pressures that have led Texas A&M to the point of seceding, namely, that the Longhorn Network gives the University of Texas a permanent structural advantage. And they cannot be pleased when Beebe says publicly that “Texas is the school that holds the key to the Big 12's future.” It reinforces the perception that the conference is just Texas and everybody else. Iowa State may tolerate that, but Oklahoma won’t.
Oklahoma has two very realistic options that are better than staying in the Big 12: the SEC and the Pac-12. Both conferences coveted the Sooners last year, and still do. Both would allow Oklahoma State to come along for the ride, an obvious requirement whatever the Sooners may do.
The SEC is a better geographic fit for Oklahoma, but the SEC has five of the fifteen winningest FBS programs in history (Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, LSU, Auburn), to say nothing of perennial power Florida. In the SEC, Oklahoma’s path to the conference championship would be a very difficult one. Of course, it will be difficult for Texas A&M too, but the Aggies need the SEC; Oklahoma doesn’t.
The Pac-12, on the other hand, has only one storied program, USC. The rest of the conference isn’t chopped liver, but it has no other program with comparable, decades-long success. In the Pac-12, the Sooners could hope to win the conference title half-a-dozen times per decade, an unlikely prospect in the talent-laden SEC. I strongly suspect, therefore, that the Pac-12 is the future home for Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
There are, of course, arguments against the Pac-12, including much longer road trips and night games that start at 10:00 p.m. Central Time. And the SEC’s “red” states are a much closer cultural fit for Oklahoma than the Pac-12’s mostly “blue” states.
There is no realistic chance that Oklahoma would get an invitation to the Big Ten. They are not academically on par with any Big Ten program, and even if the conference were willing to consider the Sooners alone, they certainly wouldn’t sniff at Oklahoma State.
Oklahoma, then, most likely moves to the Pac-12 and takes Oklahoma State with them.
III. What Does Texas Do?
Texas would love nothing more than to save the Big 12. Indeed, DeLoss Dodds, the Texas athletic director, says that he is looking at 20 schools as potential replacements for A&M, including the likes of Brigham Young and Air Force. But if Dodds thinks he can get Notre Dame, he is kidding himself. If the Irish were going to join a football conference, why would they choose the world’s most unstable one? It tells you everything you need to know about the Big 12, that it’s Dodds, and not commissioner Dan Beebe, who is looking at expansion candidates.
Texas was top dog in the conference even before Nebraska and Colorado left. Now, they are sitting pretty with their own $300 million dollar network and a league in which only one other team, Oklahoma, poses a threat to regularly win the championship.
But if I am correct that Oklahoma won’t stand for this, then the Big 12 as we have known it is doomed. Without Nebraska, Colorado, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State, the Big 12 is not a credible BCS league. Sure, DeLoss Dodds could find five teams from the mid-majors to replace those he has lost (or is about to lose), but it wouldn’t be a power conference, even with Texas as its anchor.
Texas would have the same two options as Oklahoma (the SEC and the Pac-12), plus two others the Sooners don’t realistically have, the Big Ten or independence. Let’s stipulate that any conference would be delighted to have Texas, the most valuable athletic department in America, in the nation’s second most populous state.
It is already well known that Texas President Bill Powers and Ohio State President Gordon Gee had at least discussed the idea of the Longhorns coming to the Big Ten. That became moot when the Big 12 got an eleventh-hour reprieve last summer. But as Gee wrote in an e-mail to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, Powers has a “Tech problem,” i.e., that Texas politicos don’t want Texas Tech to be the odd man out in conference re-alignment. The Big Ten won’t take Texas Tech, and unless Powers has found a way out of that problem, the Big Ten isn’t an option.
Of course, there is also the question whether the Big Ten is a cultural fit, to say nothing of a geographic fit. Texas always dominated the Big 12, and before that the old Southwest Conference. The Big Ten won’t be bullied, and it’s not clear the Longhorns are prepared to be team players. The Big Ten has the most democratic revenue-sharing arrangement of any major conference, and it is not clear how the Longhorn Network would fit in. The Longhorns have detonated two conferences in less than twenty years. Anyone would be understandably wary of them.
The Longhorns probably don’t want to be independent, either. Scheduling seasons for every other sport (besides football) is an enormous hassle when you don’t have a conference to fall back on, and they would lose their BCS auto-qualifying status. Of course, Texas would never need to worry seriously about getting a bowl invitation when they have a good season, but there is no assurance they would get the same sweetheart deal that Notre Dame got.
For Texas, the argument against the SEC, and in favor of the Pac-12, is much the same as it is for Oklahoma: the Pac-12 is a conference the Longhorns can much more easily dominate. And of course, if Oklahoma is already there, as I believe they will be, it makes sense to preserve their long-standing rivalry.
The Pac-12’s new TV network is tailor-made for Texas. In essence, Commissioner Larry Scott has created an umbrella channel, plus six regional cable channels for each pair of teams (the Washington schools, the Arizona schools, etc.). The Pac-12 won’t mind if Texas has their own network, because their new structure is already set up that way. As the Pac-12 expands in Noah’s Ark fashion, two by two, they would accept Texas Tech, thus bringing the Pac-12 to sixteen teams, precisely the scenario that Scott nearly pulled off a year ago.
IV. What Does the SEC Do?
No conference wants to be stuck at 13 teams. If the SEC adds Texas A&M, it will move quickly to add at least one more. The SEC would be happy to invite Oklahoma or Texas, but for the reasons I have noted, the Sooners and the Longhorns would be better off both financially and competitively in the Pac-12 (although they would be better off culturally and geographically in the SEC).
It is less clear where the SEC goes for its 14th team. Florida State is the rumor du jour, but FSU president Eric Barron says there is “no conversation.” As the dominant football conference, the SEC can afford to be choosy. Florida is likely to resist extending an invitation to their in-state rival, because it would eliminate one of the main recruiting advantages they have over the Seminoles, i.e., that they are in the SEC and FSU is not. South Carolina would probably object to Clemson, Georgia to Georgia Tech, and Kentucky to Louisville, for the same reason.
Of course, there is also the question of how the SEC benefits financially if they add a school that is within their current geographic footprint. How much more will ESPN/CBS be willing to pay for SEC games, if those games don’t bring in many more viewers than the SEC gets already?
If the SEC goes outside of its current footprint, what are the options? Three SEC schools are in states that share a border with Missouri, but Missouri is a “meh” add for the SEC, for the same reason it was a “meh” add for the Big Ten last year.
Virginia and the Washington, D.C., market bring obvious benefits. Virginia Tech has a better football team than UVA and has less of an historical connection with the ACC, to which it has belonged only since 2004. But in the ACC it has won the conference championship or a division title in five out of seven years. The Hokies are highly unlikely to duplicate that feat in the SEC, and they also have strong academic ties to the elite ACC schools.
So, other than the obvious fact that the SEC will add a 14th team, it is not clear how they will, assuming they don’t get Oklahoma or Texas.
V. What Does the ACC Do?
Most of the rumored options for the SEC’s 14th team are ACC schools. As the fifth-ranking auto-qualifying league (measured any way you want: prestige, competitiveness, TV revenue), the ACC cannot afford to lose members. As the Big 12 has shown, losing one member often leads to losing several. And without twelve teams, the ACC would not be able to stage a championship game.
But the ACC would not need to look far to replace Florida State, or any other member. Louisville, West Virginia, and South Florida are either in or adjoining the ACC footprint and would likely welcome an invitation. And if not a Big East school, there are several Conference USA teams that would not be out of place in the ACC, such as Memphis or East Carolina.
VI. What Do The Remaining Big 12 Teams Do?
To review the bidding thus far, if Texas A&M joins the SEC, it seems apparent that Oklahoma will abandon the Big 12 as well (with Oklahoma State), leaving Texas (likely with Texas Tech) no choice but to do the same. That will leave five Big 12 teams without a home: Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, and Missouri.
Iowa State, perennially the weakest of the Big 12 teams, is the least likely to find a home in an auto-qualifying league. Missouri has at least a geographic argument for joining either the SEC or the Big Ten, but it doesn’t bring enough to the table, either competitively or financially. Kansas has its storied basketball program, and would probably bring Kansas State along wherever it goes. Baylor needs to hope for a rescue, as it did when the Southwest Conference broke up.
The most logical answer—financially, although not geographically—is the Big East. The conference is an odd duck, with sixteen full members, but only eight that play football. It is the weakest of the auto-qualifying BCS leagues, and the only one that has never had a championship game.
Given that the Big East has never much cared about geographic contiguity or compactness, the obvious solution is to invite the remaining Big 12 teams to their party and add a championship game. Doing so would also give their newest member, TCU, a few rivals closer to home. How they would manage a twenty-team basketball conference is a question we leave for another day.
VII. What Does the Big Ten Do?
The short answer, at least for now, is: probably nothing. The Big Ten is already in a position of strength. It has no particular need to expand. There are only two institutions that could improve the Big Ten’s current product: Texas and Notre Dame. The Irish have chosen repeatedly to remain independent, and for reasons noted above, the Longhorns are more likely to choose the Pac-12.
The Big Ten is not going to add Missouri or Pitt, merely because it can. The conference already took a serious look at expanding eastward, but it ran up against an intractable problem. There simply is no Eastern school that can “deliver” the New York market. New Yorkers aren’t going to rush to buy the Big Ten Network because Rutgers or Syracuse is on it.
Adding Nebraska was an obvious win for the Big Ten, as the conference got one of the storied programs in football and was able to add an annual championship game. The next team Delany adds, if any, needs to bring in more than 1/12th of the current Big Ten shared revenue (from TV rights, bowl games, etc.), or else that institution would just drag the average down. There just aren’t many schools that can do that, because the Big Ten is so strong already.
Jack Swarbrick, the Notre Dame athletic director, said last year that he could imagine, theoretically, seismic shifts so profound that it would no longer be viable to remain independent in football. Perhaps those shifts are now upon us, and if they are the Big Ten will always be there to welcome the Irish with open arms. Perhaps Bill Powers will solve his “Tech problem.”
But for now, I expect the Big Ten to stand pat. It has the least reason of anyone to rush into an arranged marriage with a new partner.