For a dizzying minute, it seemed Texas A&M might land in the SEC soon enough to qualify for the 2011 conference title. Then the SEC offered no invitation and the Aggies decided to take a moment to assess options, and some folks are taking this to mean the whole deal — not there ever was an actual deal, but you take my meaning — is off.
To such folks, I offer this from Jackson Browne, who may or may not have ever seen a college football game: “Don’t think it won’t happen just because it hasn’t happened yet.”
The key point: Texas A&M wants out of the Big 12 because it hates the thought of sharing a shrunken conference with the overweening Texas Longhorns, who are about to launch their own TV network in collaboration with, wouldn’t you know, ESPN. Before it jumps, A&M wants to find a soft place to land. The SEC has made it clear it’s willing to be that place.
No, the SEC hasn’t said so. On Sunday its presidents met and “reaffirmed our satisfaction with the current 12-institutional alignment.” But this is posturing. The SEC, with its five consecutive BCS titles and its billion-dollar TV contracts, doesn’t want to irk anybody by appearing grabby. (The New York Times has reported that SEC commissioner Mike Slive had a heated phone conversation with Dan Beebe, his Big 12 counterpart, last week.)
The SEC has to figure out how to finesse this so its coming expansion — and expansion is absolutely coming — won’t leave the league mired in lawsuits or render it a villain in the court of public opinion. The SEC will be happy to ask Texas A&M into its living room when the Aggies officially say, “Please.” And they will.
The SEC also needs time to triangulate. The best conference isn’t going to sit on an uneven number. It needs a 14th team, and maybe a 15th and a 16th. It was rumored over the weekend that Florida State was SEC-bound, along with Clemson and Missouri, two schools that have nothing in common. The SEC’s problem won’t be in finding a new member or even three new members; the problem will be in identifying the best fit.
The Big 12 is already down to 10, and would Oklahoma want to remain in a league in which, due to the Longhorn Network, it faces a competitive imbalance? The ACC’s ballyhooed expansion hasn’t worked, and the schools who care most about football — Clemson, Florida State, Virginia Tech — must ask themselves if they want to linger in a conference that has had a hard time drumming up interest in its championship game. (In existence only since 2005, the ACC title tilt is on its third city.)
If you’re the SEC, would the proper complement to Texas A&M be another Big 12 refugee? Or would Virginia Tech, say, offer better geographic balance than, say, Oklahoma? The Aggies would give the SEC even deeper entree into the fertile recruiting ground of Texas, but Oklahoma recruits Texas, too. Would Florida State do anything to broaden the SEC base? Would Clemson? (Remember, the league already has members in both states.)
A factoid to note: The conference hasn’t expanded with Slive as commissioner. Indeed, each of the other five BCS leagues has taken on new members since the SEC grew to 12 in 1991. Even as critics contend that college football is out of control, it must be said that college football’s flagship league has been content to go with what it has.
As the landscape keeps changing and bigger programs come into play, the SEC cannot be content much longer. It wouldn’t want Texas A&M and Oklahoma follow Nebraska to the Big Ten. If high-profile programs are determined to relocate, the SEC will be duty-bound to open its gated community.
It will, but not just yet. The Texas A&M scenario flared so fast that nobody was ready for it. By the end of the year, Slive will have done his due diligence and his league will be ready to grow. To 14 teams, I’ll venture, with Virginia Tech being the 14th.
By Mark Bradley