If A&M is headed to the SEC, who becomes the 14th team?

And now in the fast-changing world of reported impending conference moves, Texas A&M is believed to be leaning toward joining the SEC rather than following Texas into the would-be super conference we shall call the “Pac-16″ for now.

The Aggies would be a good addition for the SEC, what with their historical rivalries with Arkansas and LSU, their solid revenue base (at $72 million a year, they would be middle of the SEC pack, between South Carolina and Kentucky), their educational mission (says the graduate of Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College) and their geography – they stretch the conference just 350 miles west and add the state of Texas.

So now that everybody assumes Texas A&M is coming on board, the speculation has turned to who would be the 14th SEC team – going on the likely correct assumption that an even number is pretty important to maintain. Texas, Oklahoma – even Missouri – are being tossed around as the obvious and best choices for the SEC to go after. But I don’t think any of those schools or any school west of Birmingham is a good or likely choice to become Number 14.

The problem the speculators have is they think the SEC is motivated by the same things that drive decisions in the Big Ten. It is not. And therefore its expansion game is a very different one.

In the SEC, the makeup of the conference – not getting a footprint in new TV markets – has been the key to its success and I have to believe the driver going forward.

The Makeup: Two divisions across nine states divided East/West. And it’s a happy coincidence of geography that this split puts Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in one division and Alabama, Auburn and LSU in the other. And in the East, South Carolina has become a player in the division’s dynamic while Kentucky enjoys a strong rivalry with Tennessee. In the West there is another state pair in Ole Miss/MSU, which are also good rivals for LSU and to a lesser extent Alabama and Auburn. Nobody much cares about Arkansas, but they’re competitive enough to make things interesting at times. And, oh yeah, there’s Vandy.

Needless to say, the SEC is a strong football conference, and its current division alignments both nicely hold traditional rivalries and provide a strong balance of power. With the conference schedule structure allowing cross-division rivalries such as Georgia/Auburn and Alabama/Tennessee to continue each year, it’s pretty well perfect. Add two teams on the west side and what do you do? Split Alabama and Auburn? If Mike Slive ever came up with that idea, he’d be getting a visit from Dale Peterson real quick, and that would be the end of the discussion.

Arkansas in the East? LSU? Ole Miss? Mississippi State? Makes no sense at all. Completely reorganize the conference to accommodate Missouri or Oklahoma? Let’s try North/South: Kentucky, Missouri, Vandy, Tennessee, Arkansas, … um … Georgia and Ole Miss? Or South Carolina? And North/South sort of thing will land Florida, LSU, Alabama and Auburn in the same division, and that’s just not happening. Break with geography and throw Oklahoma or Missouri in the SEC East? I don’t the think conference is desperate like that.

I think East/West balance will be a huge consideration in any SEC expansion plan. The conference fit in terms of competitiveness, history and academic profile will be first, followed by how well the geography fits.

But what about TV markets?

Texas A&M would also be a great add because it makes a lot more people in Texas care about the SEC, and Aggies are doing their Aggie thing in Houston and Dallas – the number 10 and five Nielsen markets. The SEC’s biggest “market” right now is Atlanta (8) by virtue of Athens being a part of that. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Keep in mind, however, that the SEC as it currently exists sucks in terms of delivering TV households. Its biggest state is Florida – which is a damned big state – but one with football loyalties divided among four BCS programs and where 30% of the state lives in the decidedly non-Gator Miami area. Give the Gators credit for half of Florida and you’ve got another Georgia.

The SEC completely dominates Georgia (sorry, Tech fans), which is the ninth-most-populous state, Tennessee (17th), Alabama (23rd), South Carolina (24th), Louisiana (25th), Kentucky (26th), Mississippi (32nd) and Arkansas (33rd). Not exactly a TV demographer’s dream (seven of the Big Ten’s eight current states are among the top 21), yet ESPN and CBS will gladly hand this conference $205 million a year to broadcast its games.

How can that be? It’s because of the quality of the product, not the TV households its “fan base” represents. Getting into new TV markets is the Big Ten’s game, which is fine. And while the addition of this Texas school will be great for the SEC, it’s because Texas A&M is a good fit for the conference, not because a lot of people live in Texas. But lots of people living in Texas is a really nice bonus.

So, then, I think if A&M comes in, the SEC will look to add a 14th team. But I don’t think it will consider any team west of Birmingham. And I think the fit in the conference will be the driver, not the school’s TV market. For those reasons, I like Clemson – which has a natural rival in South Carolina and a historic one in Georgia. Florida State would be an OK fit if the Gators could be talked into it (I don’t think they’re afraid of competing with FSU; they just wouldn’t want to give them the validation of being SEC-worthy). Virginia Tech comes up a lot, and while they lack good histories with SEC teams and are geographically far-flung, it wouldn’t be a horrible addition. I don’t like Miami for the SEC and don’t think the conference would see a fit there. Georgia Tech is very “ACC” in my mind, but given its in-state rivalry with UGA, historic rivalry with Alabama and former SEC membership, I think they have to be in consideration. I know Atlanta would love to have those Tennessee and Florida dollars coming to town more often. Tech would see a huge revenue boost if they joined the SEC.

If we see the Big 12 dissolve this week and Texas A&M added to the SEC, I think the conference will be (somewhat) deliberative and (relatively in this crazy process) slow to bring on the 14th. Slive has said he doesn’t want to be the guy to bust apart a conference, so it would pay to sit back for a little while and see what the Big Ten does. If they raid the Big East, it could put in motion things that make the ACC willing to give up a team the SEC would like to have. If none of that happens, you can always call Clemson in six months or so.

In any case, I hope and trust the SEC will not rush into anything, and will keep in mind the dynamic that has it on top of college football now.

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One Response to “If A&M is headed to the SEC, who becomes the 14th team?”

  1. JimBeam says:

    FSU is the likely 14th team. A solid choice geographically with a good fan base. The state of Florida is big enough for two SEC schools, even if the Gators don’t like it. Bobby Bowden didn’t want to play in the SEC, but Jimbo Fisher may have a different attitude.

    Are the Hokies even interested? VT was on the outside looking in at the ACC for years before they got the invitation. Would the Hokies give up an in-conference rivalry with UVA, Maryland and the state of North Carolina, plus former Big East schools Miami and Boston College to join the SEC? Plus, Lane Stadium isn’t that big. Plus the ACC is stronger academically, which matters to the administration of a schools whose chief rival is Mr. Jefferson’s university.

    Clemson is known as an SEC school in the ACC. Clemson has a big stadium and a rabid fan base and rivalries with several SEC schools, including a wild rivalry with South Carolina and a dormant, but nasty, rivalry with UGA. However, South Carolina isn’t that big of a state and Clemson would still be one of the smaller schools in the conference. Like VT, Clemson’s administration likes the academics of the ACC. Finally, aren’t two Tigers enough for the SEC?

    Yes, “Da U” had some awesome teams back in the day, but Miami is another Vanderbilt. They are actually a better fit in the ACC.

    Georgia Tech brings historic rivalries and Atlanta, but UGA already owns Georgia, and there is plenty of bad blood between GT and the SEC. Plus, GT would be the second smallest school with the second smallest stadium in the SEC. Not going to happen.

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