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Conference realignment talk heats up throughout the FBS

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The wheels on the realignment talk bus shook the rust off in a hurry last week

NCAA FOOTBALL: OCT 08 Oklahoma v Texas Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

By now, most of you are well aware that news broke last week that Texas and Oklahoma are in advanced talks that have reportedly been occurring for the past six months over joining the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and leaving the Big 12 scrambling for what to do next. Ironically, this news was broken by the Houston Chronicle right as Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher took to the podium at SEC Football Media Days, given the Aggies hatred of the fellow in-state Longhorns.

For fans of the movie “Anchorman,” the scene post-news crew brawl feels spot on for how the news last week hit that Texas and Oklahoma have been in secret talks to join the SEC for months and are expected to make a major announcement in the coming days this week. As the line goes: “Boy, that escalated quickly...I mean, that really got out of hand fast.”

Of course, the other ways that sequence of scenes in “Anchorman” is analogous is the fact that weatherman, Brick Tamland, is suddenly holding a grenade out of nowhere at the start of the brawl (which is what this news feels like to the college sports landscape) and that Brick later stabs a man through his heart with a trident (a perfect example of what Texas and Oklahoma are metaphorically doing to the Big 12).

Texas and Oklahoma are days away from officially sent notice to the Big 12 on Monday that the institutions are departing the league. The two schools likely still need to file a formal application to join the SEC, and the SEC would need to approve membership with at least 11 “yes” votes from the 14 current member schools, though it has been stated the vote would be announced as unanimous if accepted.

What it means for the Sooners and Longhorns

First off, I would like to look at what that news likely means for Oklahoma and Texas. It is an immediate mark of prestige that is bestowed on both programs. The SEC is the most elite football conference for the past few decades, at least. Joining the conference, for the football programs of both schools, is clearly a big upgrade over the Big 12’s regional appeal for what are arguably the conference’s two true national brands in the sport.

To look at the most basic of numbers for why the SEC is a huge upgrade, one should just look at the national titles. Since 1990 the SEC rules the roost, and it isn’t even close. Now, there have been a number of conference realignments since 1990, so for simplicity my count ignores periods where teams like Miami (FL.) were independent or in the Big East and counts the Hurricanes as an ACC program title, while ignoring the fact Colorado and Nebraska are now in separate leagues and counts them as Big 12 titles (which for 1990 Colorado, the Big 12 didn’t even exist after all). So, without further ado, here are the titles broken down:

  • SEC: 15
  • ACC: Eight
  • Big 12: Six
  • Big Ten: Three
  • Pac-12: Three

The facts are plain and simple that — no matter what a Big 12 fan would try to argue — the SEC has been the dominant league over the past 30 years. The Big 12 and ACC had a nice run in the 1990s, but since 2000 the Big 12’s success has been fleeting. The SEC has mostly had to fend off an occasional ACC program, and equally as rarely as a Big 12 program, the Ohio State Buckeyes out of the Big Ten. Financially, it is not even close in payouts where the Big Ten and SEC are light years ahead in media revenue. The Big 12 was also potentially looking at a fiscal cliff as contracts come to an end in 2024 per reports.

For Oklahoma, though, I fail to see how the program benefits from joining the SEC. While fans are mad about the Big 12 being a FOX Sports league, and thus ending up with the “Big Noon” kickoff games that result in 11:00 am Central Time kickoffs, the fact is the ratings for those games are great. The school demands huge viewership because of an elite offense. A school like Oklahoma often isn’t getting viewership because it fields a complete team (*cough, defense) that can compete for championships on the national stage.

Frankly, the Sooners get to mostly sleepwalk through a weak conference right now, and may even suffer one loss early in the season before getting a chance to redeem that loss in the conference title game, and eventually getting a bid into the College Football Playoff field. In the SEC, Oklahoma would be lucky to be the fourth best team in the league most years. Even in an expanded CFP with a 12-team field, that is unlikely to get you into the playoffs. This move, to me, makes zero sense from a competitive advantage standpoint, even when you add in the finances.

As for Texas, well, this should be hilarious. Almost as hilarious as the Maryland Terrapins Twitter account last week.

If you haven’t seen it already, be sure to check out the SEC Shorts’ joke on that very subject of the Longhorns excessive baggage they bring to whatever conference they try and bolt to next.

What it means for the SEC

As it stands right now, the SEC is second fiddle to the Big Ten in terms of media rights revenue. With the Big Ten’s renegotiated media rights in the most recent contract negotiation, the conference leaped past the SEC in revenue sharing back in 2019 and looks to stay that way for the time being until the SEC’s next contract takes effect in 2024 (ignoring pandemic-related impacts). Should the SEC formally accept forthcoming applications from Texas and Oklahoma to become a 16-team conference, it would likely add two top name brands in the sport of football and result in increased ratings, and therefore a money bonanza for the league that would easily leapfrog the Big Ten long term.

However, one has to wonder if the anger from the Aggies at reportedly being left out in the dark until last week won’t result in a vote whipping campaign with former Big 12 compatriot Missouri into rejecting at least Texas’ bid to join the SEC. It is far from a done deal as you could easily see a picture where Texas A&M, Missouri, and possibly Arkansas or another school come together and manage to sway just one other league member to a “no” vote and throw chaos into the picture. More should come out soon on that given the board meeting scheduled for tonight.

What it means for the Big 12

In one word, the consensus seems to be “relegation” as the most likely scenario. The eight schools left do not pose particularly appealing traits for any of the other leagues to try and poach members other than maybe West Virginia to the Atlantic Coast Conference, though that is far from a certain scenario. This is likely why the Big 12 did reportedly try last minute efforts to try and salvage keeping Oklahoma and Texas according to some reports.

However, they were obviously unsuccessful. So with Texas and Oklahoma officially gone, the question turns to what now. Trying to salvage the league would require targeting worthy Group of Five or independent members such as Boise State, Houston or Cincinnati, or perhaps seeing if BYU is still interested after rejecting the Cougars’ bid to join just a few years ago. Would it be enough to salvage the Big 12 as a Power Five league, though? Would remaining Power Five leagues pick off some of the remaining schools, such as the Big Ten takeing the remaining Association of American Universities (AAU) members in Iowa State and Kansas and the Pac-12 possibly take the likes of Texas Tech or Oklahoma State?

Even Group of Five leagues are circling the remains of the Big 12 to see what might be plausible or beneficial as the conference reels from the shockwaves caused by the Sooners and Longhorns sudden departure announcement.

Implications for the Big Ten and Michigan State

The Big Ten has a bit of an awkward decision to make. If the SEC pulls the trigger to move to 16-teams and adds name brands in Texas and Oklahoma, it will put the league at a disadvantage in numerous ways. The Big Ten will have fewer name football brands in comparison, will likely have lower TV ratings any given season compared to SEC schedules, and have a more difficult time competing for expanded playoff bids versus the SEC. However, the remaining programs of the Big 12 mark the easiest to add to the league and none of the remaining schools offer much appeal for football expansion.

Separately, not to sound like an SEC fan here by saying “it just means more,” but, well, the honest answer is that being a member of the Big Ten does in fact mean more than simply being part of the conference in athletics. Membership in the Big Ten has traditionally been a mark of prestige in academic research in addition to athletics. All members of the conference have been members of the AAU, that is until Nebraska was kicked out shortly after the school joined the Big Ten.

Also included in membership in the Big Ten is being a member of first the Committee on Institutional Cooperation and then in 2016 it became the Big Ten Academic Alliance. The consortium is an arrangement between all members of the Big Ten to share research with each other, sharing of library materials, bulk purchase of academic materials, and assistance in applying for new research grants.

Collectively, the Big Ten represents over $10.5 billion in research money in 2018 (last year an annual report has been published for to date) which is more than the Ivy League and entire California system combined. SEC schools don’t even spend $5 billion combined, and Florida alone spent almost $1 billion of that, while Texas A&M spent $1.1 billion of that total (both figures are from the 2019 academic year).

All of that to say that the Big Ten seems to reportedly be uninterested in rocking the boat in terms of membership qualities outside of athletics. That seemed to be reiterated today based on some media comments:

Outside of Texas, the only remaining programs from the Big 12 that fit that criteria are Kansas and Iowa State. Neither is lighting up the interest board historically in football or revenue. The AAU members among the Power Five conferences outside of the Big Ten include:

ACC Teams

Big 12 Teams

  • Iowa State
  • Kansas
  • Texas

Pac-12 Teams

  • Arizona
  • Cal-Berkley
  • UCLA
  • Colorado
  • Oregon
  • Stanford
  • USC
  • Utah
  • Washington

SEC

  • Texas A&M
  • Florida
  • Missouri
  • Vanderbilt

Should Oklahoma and Texas end up joining the SEC, is there a scenario where Texas A&M and Missouri, who originally was in talks with the Big Ten about joining before Nebraska swooped in back in 2010 and took the spot, bolt the SEC in anger? Does the Big Ten go after ACC programs like Pittsburgh who geographically fit the footprint and have a built-in rival with teams like Penn State? Should the Big Ten just hold firm at 14 members? Does Notre Dame suddenly change its mind after how many decades of spurning the Big Ten and ask to join? Or is there truth to swirling rumors the past few days that the Big Ten is trying to poach Pac-12 teams to create a 20-team super league with the likes of USC, UCLA, Stanford, California, Washington and Oregon?

Then again, maybe the ball has already started rolling if some reported actions are to be believed. Mike Vernon reported last week that Kansas has already set up a call with the Big Ten:

One thing is for sure, the landscape for college sports has gone from relative stability to utter chaos in just one week.