After a couple of relatively quiet weeks on the news front, Saturday has become ground zero for important events on the UK sports scene. Events that were previously unexpected have all come together to see a seismic shift in the SEC, as talk of expansion could completely change the college sports landscape going forward. A quick dive into what it all means:
WHAT HAS HAPPENED
It now seems like a foregone conclusion, which of course means it could all change tomorrow. But if events proceed in the direction they are heading, Texas A&M is set to join the SEC next week. Every reporter with a source (and many likely without) are reporting that the Aggies are meeting on Monday to vote for the move and minus some last minute good old Texas politickin’, the SEC will have its 13th member. A lot of fans have been questioning the rationale for the move, but for me it is quite simple.
(1) A&M is an Attractive Addition: Once you make the decision, or are forced to make the decision (more on that later) to expand, the Aggies are probably the most attractive of all reasonable potential members. A&M opens up an entirely new football-crazy market to the SEC and brings with it one of the most under-appreciated, passionate fanbases in college football. The 12th Man is one of the great traditions in the sport and culturally, it fits directly into the current SEC perfectly. Over the last 15 years, the Aggies have taken a backseat to Texas/Oklahoma in the Big 12 and with the Longhorns recent power play on the Longhorn Network, the time was right for a move. The SEC gets a large institution with a huge fanbase, opens up a new recruiting market and makes SEC football even more relevant in Texas than it was before their addition. In that respect, it is virtually a no-brainer. PLUS, you dont have any baggage, as A&M coming to the SEC does not require you to take Texas Tech, in the same way that adding Oklahoma probably forces the addition of Oklahoma State. Slam-dunk decision.
(2) SEC Gets First Choice in Inevitable Rush to Expansion: We have talked about it often on here thanks to Coach Calipari’s comments on the subject, but the move in college sports to four 16 team power conferences seems inevitable. Whether that then leads to movement away from the NCAA is up for debate, but the reality is that very soon the major college sports landscape will look like this: SEC, BIG TEN, PAC TEN and whatever 4th conference survives out of Big East, ACC and Big 12. The money suggests that these super conferences would find huge television homes (all likely creating their own network) and they would become the centerpieces for college athletics in the future. If it is inevitable, then the SEC is making the right move in striking first. By adding Texas A&M, the SEC gets the best of the currently available options before other conferences get first selection. No one believes Texas A&M will be the last selection, but it is likely the best one and the SEC took them before the Pac 10 could.
WHAT IS NEXT
So what happens next? Well if you listen to the reporters online, it is clear that no one knows. Most seem to agree that the field of viable candidates to be the 14th or potentially the 15/16th team includes:
The reality is that none of those schools are close to done deals and all come with baggage/potential problems. Oklahoma is an attractive addition, but there seems to be no earthly reason to add both OU and OSU, considering the overall size of the state. If reports that they are a “package deal” are correct, the Sooners will be like your good friend that marries an awful spouse and then becomes much less appealing to invite over for future get-togethers. FSU/Clemson/Georgia Tech are all each individually strong athletic programs but suffer in attractiveness due to the fact that they share a state with current conference members. If there is any truth to the “secret pact” between Florida/Georgia and South Carolina keeping their in-state rivals out, then their addition seems even less promising. NC State would be an interesting addition and it might be a good move for the Wolfpack to get out of the “Jan Brady” third sister niche they currently fill in the state of North Carolina. But that would be a huge strike against tradition and seems like a long shot.
All of which leaves what I think are the two most likely schools for the 14th invite, Missouri and Virginia Tech. While both deny interest, I trust nothing any school says publicly until agreements are worked out privately. Missouri adds the television markets of St Louis and Kansas City, while allowing the SEC to dip its toe into the Midwest, should it ever want to look at a school like Kansas in the future. Virginia Tech adds another powerhouse football program with a loyal fan base, and opens up even further the ever-growing fertile recruiting base of the Virginia coast. Both would be attractive enough to add luster to future TV deals and neither would embarrass the conference academically, so to me, the smart money is on one of the two getting the next invite.
Then the question becomes, do you go to 16…and if so, how creative are you willing to be? Do you go north and pick off Maryland? How about to the Midwest for Kansas? Do you try to be crazy creative and go after North Carolina/Duke? None are as far fetched as you might imagine, because the future of both the ACC and Big 12 is far from certain. The reality is that this is a brave new world, and we dont know what will happen.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR KENTUCKY?
The short answer…as of now, probably not much. Texas A&M is a perfect addition because it is a football powerhouse name, but they are actually beatable. The Aggies are only 36-29 the last four years, while Kentucky is 35-29 with a tougher schedule. Any conference realignment will probably put the Aggies in the West, so UK probably wont play them often anyway. What will matter much more for Kentucky in football is who the NEXT addition is. If it is Missouri, Kentucky could get a beatable Eastern opponent…thats good! If it is Virginia Tech, well its another tough team to take out…but we do get a fun road trip to add to the mix! If it is Clemson and Florida State…well lets not talk about it.
For basketball, all of these teams just add filler. Texas A&M has been decent the past few years, as has Virginia Tech and Missouri. But none are powers and none will shift the landscape of the SEC. What would be more interesting for Kentucky basketball in the future is if the SEC tries to get creative and moves to a NC State/Maryland/Kansas/North Carolina, etc for the future 15th and 16th members. That is probably unlikely, but at least in the case of Maryland and UNC, the markets/marketability of the programs would make the SEC try. But many factors, most notably the programs’ ACC loyalty to the death, would make it quite a long shot.
One thing that a Texas A&M announcement almost makes certain will happen in the not-too-distant future. There will be an SEC Television Network. The money is there…the markets are there…and unlike the Longhorn Network, the programming is there. Current tv contracts make it difficult, but presumably they will be renegotiated as part of the expansion. When that happens, one has to think the new network is coming. The question is not if, it is just when.
So lets get ready to welcome the Aggies to the SEC fray. If nothing else, it gives us a new team to make jokes about for years to come.