The SEC is a powerful financial regulator with a lot of sway over the American economy. It’s been around for nearly 100 years and its decisions have had profound impacts on the markets, from the Great Depression to the 2008 financial crisis.
Conferences are switched between teams. It’s a reality of life in collegiate football. In the 1930s, the Southern Conference’s more football-obsessed members split out to create the Southeastern Conference. Conference USA has had almost as many distinct members (24) as it has been over the last 24 years (25). At one time or another, 42 colleges have declared themselves members of the WAC, with a 43rd (Southern Utah) on the way.
However, there has never been a possible earthquake of the scale of Oklahoma and Texas leaving the Big 12 in favor of joining the SEC in the history of college football conference realignment. The two institutions took the first move on Monday, declaring that their media rights grants would not be renewed when they expire in 2025.
There are still a lot of unanswered questions. The Sooners and Longhorns aren’t sure when they’ll depart the Big 12. We have no idea what the remaining Big 12 programs will do. We don’t know how much money will be involved in the exodus, how much money this new SEC will make, or how much money the surviving Big 12 schools would lose.
We should nevertheless pause to consider what this moment signifies and, more importantly, what could happen next if the Horns and Sooners do actually join the SEC. Here are eight key lessons for everything from the SEC to the Big 12, Notre Dame, and more.
The SEC may be as powerful as it has long been believed.
We’ve seen plenty of notable transfers over the years — after all, it’s just been a decade since Nebraska, the Big 12’s initial heavyweight, departed for the Big Ten — but this is huge. The SEC is gaining a six-time Big 12 champion and a club that has ranked fourth in average SP+ rating over the last five years in Oklahoma. Only by going after Ohio State or Clemson could the SEC have added a stronger football program than OU.
The SEC is getting a football program from Texas that has struggled recently by its own standards. Over the last five years, the Longhorns have ranked 20th in average SP+ (behind soon-to-be-former conference member Oklahoma State, among others), and they’ve only finished higher than 19th in the AP poll once in the last 11 years.
Despite this, (a) the Horns earned the Learfield Cup (given to the most successful overall sports program) for the first time this school year after winning three team national championships, and (b) their football program remains in the top 20 in average SP+ for the last five years. That isn’t exactly dreadful!
This move will give the SEC eight of the top 20 football programs, according to the SP+ five-year average (No. 1 Alabama, No. 4 OU, No. 5 Georgia, No. 6 LSU, No. 9 Florida, No. 10 Auburn, No. 15 Texas A&M, No. 20 Texas), plus another six (Kentucky, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee) that have ranked in the SP+ top 25 at least once during that time. Only Arkansas and Vanderbilt have yet to accomplish so, despite the fact that Arkansas was ranked 14th six years ago.
For a long time, the SEC has positioned itself as the NFL’s AAA affiliate, and it’s worked well as a recruitment pitch. Six of the top 15 recruiters, as well as 11 of the top 30, were from the SEC, according to the multiyear recruiting averages I collect for SP+ predictions. It’s now eight of the top 15 programs, and the other eight must make an even stronger “come here to play against the best” pitch.
Bottom line: If I had predicted how a proposed 12-team College Football Playoff would have worked during the last seven years, the SEC would have likely received at least three teams in five of those years, and four teams twice. It will now be expected to produce four to five per year, and it will often do so.
Texas and Oklahoma may still be fierce rivals, but they seem to have come together in a move that has the potential to shake up college athletics. Icon Sportswire/John Korduner
The SEC will not be bullied by Texas.
It was apparent by the early 1990s that the Southwest Conference was in severe danger. Arkansas had moved to the SEC for greener, more stable pastures, and with the conference accounting for only about 7% of the US TV audience (the SEC and Big Ten were well into double digits), and Texas and Texas A&M being the only nationally recognized programs, there was no draw for television revenue. UT and A&M were also looking into their choices, and the SWC was looking for methods to persuade them to remain.
A scheduling arrangement with another league, such as the Big 8 or WAC, was one proposal (because regular San Diego State-Rice matchups would have saved the day, for sure). Another was redistributing money in favor of the larger institutions; for example, home teams may retain their own gate revenues.
Clearly, this did not work. The formation of a Big 12 conference, consisting of the Big 8’s membership plus the top half of the SWC’s, was announced in early 1994. Texas, on the other hand, had grown to appreciate the “we keep what we make” approach and had bullied the conference for decades to keep the conference’s playing field uneven, even as bigger and more financially successful conferences like the SEC and Big Ten (at least among senior members) distributed media revenue equally.
Four of the Big 12’s founding institutions, including Texas A&M and Missouri of the SEC, left the league in 2010-11 as a result of the resulting disagreement, as well as the establishment of the Longhorn Network inside the ESPN family.
The SEC is not the same as the Big 12 or the SWC. Revenue from media rights and other sources is divided equally and will very certainly continue to be distributed evenly in the future. Even Alabama won’t be able to bully the league into doing what it wants on a particular topic.
Texas has new leadership once again. The new UT isn’t always the same as the old UT. However, it will be interesting to watch whether and how this new union operates.
More money does not always equate to happiness.
On the “Going for Two” podcast, which he presents with Bryan Fischer, Matt Brown of the excellent Extra Points newsletter went on a very helpful tirade last week. He agreed that income improvements may lead to specific adjustments that improve the athlete or student experience at lower levels of the sport — greater scholarship levels, reduced student fees, etc. — but highlighted that the situation is quite different at the highest level of the sport.
“Did any Big Ten school, or for that matter, any Power 5 institution, introduce a single sport that boosted scholarship possibilities for athletes in the past decade?” He inquired. “The response is a resounding nay… What happened was that a number of coaches got a lot more money, and a bunch of facilities that don’t actually help recruiting were constructed to the point where Northwestern has a space station and is recruiting almost the same kind of athlete that it was before because it’s Northwestern.”
The Learfield Cup was previously won by Texas (and struggling, relatively speaking, at football). OU was already a regular in the CFP and a force in other sports, like as softball. They’ll both have more spectacular home schedules to pitch to fans, but they’re already doing well. In this case, OU may be willingly foregoing a virtually yearly bye in a future 12-team CFP by making this decision.
One of the most important things to monitor going forward is if any of the suggested features of a future 12-team playoff, like as the requirement that the top four seeds (and first-round byes) be reserved for conference champions, alter as a result of this decision. It was one of my favorite aspects of the plan, but if the SEC wants a third or more of the 12-team field, it may be able to put pressure on the NCAA to eliminate that provision. If it doesn’t, OU will likely continue to appear in plenty more CFPs in the future, but as a No. 6 or No. 10 seed, for example, rather than a No. 3. Perhaps the opportunity to tailgate with LSU supporters and visit the Grove on occasion is worth sacrificing your chances of winning a national championship. But there’s no denying that there’s some dissatisfaction on the horizon.
In a supercharged SEC, might Lincoln Riley see a lot more of Nick Saban? Joe Skipper/AP Photo
Isn’t it true that we’re not even thinking about maintaining divisions?
In the early 1990s, when the SEC expanded from ten to twelve teams, it took the bold step of establishing divisions and a conference championship game. The West was made up of the six westernmost clubs, while the East was made up of the easternmost. Teams were given permanent yearly opponents from the opposite division, and off they went.” It was just a matter of time until it became the standard.
When the league expanded from 12 to 14 clubs in 2012, it largely maintained the status quo, with six-team divisions becoming seven-team divisions. Missouri joined the East, while Texas A&M joined the West (which, thanks to the presence of nearby Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee, made more geographic sense than at first glance).
The limitations of divisions, on the other hand, were clear immediately. Georgia has yet to visit Texas A&M after a decade in the SEC, and LSU wasn’t supposed to visit Missouri until 2023 until last year’s scheduling changes sent the Tigers to Columbia. You hardly have a relationship with almost half of your conference when you’re playing an eight-game conference schedule with six division matchups, a constant opponent, and just one other cross-division adversary.
It would be simple for the SEC to put Oklahoma and Texas to the West Division, Auburn to the East Division (with Alabama as their new permanent cross-division opponent), and call it a day. However, this would aggravate an already precarious situation. Auburn and LSU would move from playing every year to once or twice every ten years.
I’ve long advocated for abandoning divisions in favor of a pod system, and in a 16-team conference, the concept becomes not just important but also feasible.
“Pods” may refer to a variety of things:
1. Rotating schedules for four-team pods. When the WAC extended its football membership to 16 schools in 1996, it divided the league into four geographic quadrants, each with four teams (Rice, SMU, TCU, and Tulsa, for example), and built schedules around the concept of playing your quadrant every year and rotating through the other quadrants. Granted, the WAC was still much too geographically and culturally divided for the experiment to succeed, but the concept was interesting from a scheduling perspective.
The SEC Network presented an illustration of how four-team pods could operate in the new league the morning after the Texas-Oklahoma rumor surfaced.
The SEC Network, the league’s own television network, offers some suggestions. pic.twitter.com/MSnth9IYMM
July 22, 2021 — Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger)
Granted, having Texas and Texas A&M in separate pods would be odd, but the overall concept — nine-game schedules with three constant rivals and alternating games versus schools in other pods — would serve an obvious purpose. You’d get to play most of your main competitors once a year, and everyone else twice every four years. That sounds like a meeting!
Everyone, on the other hand, has a unique set of adversaries. You are not required to commit to four rigid pods.
2. Each school has three permanent opponents. You could essentially build customized pods and keep the majority of each team’s long-term rivalry.
Here’s my best guess at how it could happen:
Auburn, Mississippi State, and Tennessee are Alabama’s inextricable foes.
Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas A&M University are all in Arkansas.
Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina are all represented at Auburn.
Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee are all in Florida.
Auburn, Florida, and South Carolina are all in Georgia.
Florida, Mississippi State, and Missouri are among the teams in Kentucky.
Ole Miss, Texas, and Texas A&M are among LSU’s rivals.
Alabama, Kentucky, and Ole Miss are among the teams that have visited Mississippi State.
Arkansas, Kentucky, and Oklahoma are all in Missouri.
Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas are all in Oklahoma.
LSU, Mississippi State, and Vanderbilt are among Ole Miss’s rivals.
Auburn, Georgia, and Vanderbilt are all in South Carolina.
Alabama, Florida, and Vanderbilt are all in Tennessee.
LSU, Oklahoma, and Texas A&M are all from Texas.
Arkansas, LSU, and Texas A&M
Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Tennessee are all represented at Vanderbilt.
Is this ideal? No, and I’m not sure perfection exists in a world where some schools have just one or two opponents they must play every year, while others, like LSU or Tennessee, have around eight. When it comes to who gets matched up with whom, I’m sure there will be dramatic discussions (and maybe fistfights), but there’s solace in the knowledge that you still get to play every other year on average, regardless of who you don’t get permanently.
Here are a few samples of the schedules that this personalized pod structure might generate if a comparable shift to nine-game conference schedules were made*. To obtain the most balanced strength of schedule from team to team, I utilized five-year SP+ averages.
(* If the SEC was dead bent on keeping eight-game schedules, restricting schools to two permanent rivals would accomplish the same “play everyone twice in four years” balance.)
Oklahoma’s schedule would look like this:
Year 1: Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky, LSU, at Florida, at Mississippi State, at Missouri, at South Carolina, vs. Texas. Year 2: Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky, LSU, at Florida, at Mississippi State, at Missouri, at South Carolina, vs. Texas.
Year 2: Georgia, Missouri, Ole Miss, and Vanderbilt, with games against Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Texas A&M.
Year 3: Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi State, South Carolina, at Auburn, Kentucky, LSU, Missouri, vs. Texas, at Auburn, Kentucky, LSU, Missouri
Year 4: Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas A&M, at Arkansas, at Georgia, at Ole Miss, at Vanderbilt, vs. Texas, at Arkansas, at Georgia, at Ole Miss, at Vanderbilt, at Vanderbilt, at Vanderbilt, at Vanderbilt, at Vanderbilt, at
This ensures just one major “top 10 vs. top 10” home game each year on average, and it definitely adds some tough road trips to the schedule, but the mix of significance and novelty likely means that most OU supporters would look favorably upon such schedules.
What about the present members of the SEC? With two new conference mates and no divisions, how would their schedules look? Auburn will be the test subject.
Year 1: Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Texas, at Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Year 2: Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Texas, at Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, and Oklahoma.
Year 2: Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Texas A&M, and a Vanderbilt game.
Year 3: Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, at Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi State, and Texas; at Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi State, and Texas; at Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi State, and Texas; at Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi State, and Texas; at
Year 4: Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Tennessee, at Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt.
Isn’t this beginning to feel more like a conference?
I’m still not projecting the “four 16-team superconferences” scenario that everyone has been expecting for years…
…but “OU and UT to the SEC” is the first step if it ever happens.
Since the previous round of realignment, this has been a hot subject, but after the Pac-16 concept fell through, the math never made sense to me, mainly because I couldn’t see OU leaving the Big 12. (I could imagine Texas going, but I figured independence was as probable as anything else.)
With the Sooners and Longhorns joining the SEC, a route is clearly visible today. The Big Ten gains two more Big 12 teams, the ACC gains two (or one plus Notre Dame), and the Pac-12 gains four, giving the league a total of four 16-team conferences.
But which program does the Big Ten go with? Who knows, maybe Kansas for basketball, but who else? Will it determine that Iowa State is a worthy acquisition despite the fact that it already has a presence in Iowa (and a presence in Iowa doesn’t contribute much in terms of revenue)? Will it conclude that pursuing TCU and dabbling in the Texas market is worth the regional disruption and higher travel costs? Would it rather enroll in an ACC program? Would it come to the conclusion that 15 teams is sufficient?
With the ACC, it’s the same question. While both Baylor and Kansas would clearly enhance the basketball reputation of a basketball-friendly league, West Virginia is the only Big 12 school that makes geographic sense. And it surely goes without saying that permanently adding Notre Dame to the list would be the top priority.
The arithmetic of “four 16-team conferences” now makes more sense than it has in the past, but I’m still not convinced. If every league suddenly agrees that we’re on our way to a world of “four superconferences,” they may as well make their draft choices and move on. But, since no one is in control of college football, no one can force it to happen, and there aren’t many big changes a league can make if it’s acting on its own.
That said, if top-division college football’s membership is culled a bit, as it was in the early 1980s, and a 130-team FBS becomes something more like an 80-team subdivision with the power conferences and the best from what we now call the Group of 5, this move both consolidates the SEC’s place atop the totem pole and forces others to move in res, this move certainly consolidates the SEC’s place atop the totem pole and forces And, if the “pay for play” idea gains traction, SEC schools will be in the best possible position to compensate their players (and therefore attract the finest athletes to come play for them) in the future.
(If the financial changes we’ve seen in European soccer continue to make their way into this sport, they’ll be only a brand or two away from effectively forming a “Super League.”) But that’s much too revolting to consider right now, so don’t bring it up.)
In the current age of college football realignment, what’s next for prideful independent Notre Dame? AP photo by Matt Cashore/Pool
What are your thoughts, Notre Dame?
In the battle for long-term dominance and income, this may be a death blow for any league that isn’t called the SEC. It will be difficult to beat having roughly half of the largest brands in college football, even if some of those brands are certain to go 8-4 or worse in any given year.
Unless something crazy happens, like the Big Ten and Pac-12 merging, or the SEC decides to keep growing and add Clemson or something, the greatest remaining move on the chess board may be what happens with the program in South Bend, Indiana. Apart from its brief ACC membership in 2020, Notre Dame has been the largest free agent on the market for almost a century, but following a series of unsuccessful attempts to join the Big Ten in the early twentieth century, it has been content to exist as an independent ever since. Even in response to a 12-team playoff with only conference winners receiving byes, this remained the norm. (The idea was developed by a group that included Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick.)
Is Notre Dame’s determination unshakeable in the face of possible growth not just in the SEC but also in the ACC and Big Ten? And if the school were to change its mind and join a permanent football conference, would it select the ACC (where it currently has all of its other sports) or would the Big Ten’s better quality and financial potential alter the equation? If anything, I suppose the ACC is still preferred, but it’s a narrative point.
It’s difficult to argue that this is beneficial for college football.
The financial accounts of OU and Texas will become much bigger than they currently are, and existing SEC members are certain to enjoy a substantial boost in income as well. And, full transparency, ESPN would almost certainly profit greatly from this agreement.
However, it’s hard not to be concerned about the state of college football as a whole. While money has clearly long been the main motivation for action in college athletics, this moves us even farther down that path.
In the near run, though, it accomplishes something even more damaging: it sends a clear message to a number of Big 12 programs that they don’t count.
Oklahoma State (101), TCU (93), Kansas State (85), Baylor (84) and West Virginia (81) have all won more games than Texas since its last season as a national championship candidate in 2009. In that period, Texas Tech has equaled or surpassed the Horns’ victory total four times; Iowa State has done it twice in the last four years and is coming off of their best-ever top-10 finish. Texas did certainly bully the league for decades before being granted its own ESPN network, but none of this helped the school gain a competitive football edge. Despite this, UT was able to chose to break up the league and leave eight other schools fighting for scraps and much less income due to its financial clout.
To put it bluntly, it stinks. With since the game is so obviously skewed against them, it may result in some successful schools suffering even more to stay up with the pack… and some engaged and passionate fan groups losing interest. When the greatest possible number of schools are engaged, enthusiastic, and feel like important members of the college football universe, college football is at its finest and healthiest; actions like these ensure the reverse.
Remember the Sun Belt, Big 12’s stragglers.
Following the major power conference changes in the latter years of the previous REALIGNMENTPALOOZA era, what would become known as college football’s Group of 5 made their own moves. After being plundered by other conferences, the Big East added additional programs and rebranded as the AAC. Conference USA gained several solid brands in 2013 and 2014, such as Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky, but it also went for market share. It targeted FAU and FIU as a proxy for the Miami market, UTSA as a proxy for San Antonio, North Texas as a proxy for Dallas, and Middle Tennessee as a proxy for Nashville. Charlotte started a football program and was accepted into C-USA as well.
The concept of developing around television markets has some traction in the early 2010s environment. However, several of these programs failed to play excellent football in the years that followed. Meanwhile, the Sun Belt reacted to the loss of a number of its teams to C-USA by adding… strong, well-supported football programs. In 2014, it added renowned FCS schools Appalachian State and Georgia Southern, and two years later, Coastal Carolina.
The result: For five of the last six years, the Sun Belt has had a better average SP+ rating than League USA, the conference that invaded it. In the last three years, it has had six teams finish better than 40th in SP+; Conference USA hasn’t had one since 2016. Coastal Carolina would have been a member of a 12-team playoff if it had been established in time for the 2020 season. ESPN just announced an increased TV contract with the Sun Belt Conference.
I bring this up as a reminder that even in a world where the SEC is powered by nuclear power, there will be plenty of entertaining non-SEC football to be played. The remaining eight Big 12 teams should focus as much as humanly can on excitement and genuine football excellence.
Money is, without a doubt, crucial. If a crazy merger with the Pac-12 to create some kind of Pac-18 or Pac-20 is on the table, it overrides everything else and ensures that everyone can still make $35 million per year or something like in media money. However, such figures are unlikely to be correct. If a majority of the Big 12’s remaining programs have to choose between, say, joining an expanded Pac-12 for slightly more money or staying in the Big 12 and adding some AAC and/or independents to the mix — say, Cincinnati, BYU, UCF, Memphis, Houston, SMU, and possibly the Mountain West’s Boise State — the latter should be taken seriously.
1. Currently, the Big 12 is classified as an Autonomy Five conference, which it could keep by just adding additional teams.
2. If the proposed 12-team CFP continued to award top seeds exclusively to conference champions, a Big 12 champion would have a good chance of receiving playoff byes on a regular basis.
3. Travel expenses would be drastically reduced. Even though a Pac-18 might result in greater incoming income, this will certainly have to be considered.
4. Including Cincinnati, BYU, Memphis, and perhaps others in a league with Oklahoma State, Iowa State, TCU, and others? You’re joking, right? This event would be a lot of fun! That’s not to say that a Pac-12 merger wouldn’t result in some entertaining Oklahoma State-Oregon matches or whatever, but the new Big 12 would have a football identity, close and important league contests, and plenty of talent. In last year’s conference race, for example, teams rated seventh (BYU), eighth (Cincinnati), eleventh (Iowa State), and twenty-third (Oklahoma State) in SP+ might have competed.
It would also be a brutal basketball league, particularly if Houston was a part of it.
This enlarged Big 12 would be the most popular football league, akin to the Sun Belt for power conferences. That may not be as important as actual cash, but it is more important than we think in our most cynical times.
From the SEC’s announcement in December 1989 that it was seeking to grow and ultimately acquire Arkansas (which significantly exacerbated the SWC’s already high instability) to the conference’s formal announcement in early 1994, it took approximately four years for the Big 12 to take shape. The league has persevered despite the loss of four original members, the prospect of a Pac-16, the Longhorn Network, and ongoing insecurity. But, even if the Big 12 lives on in name, the departure of Oklahoma and Texas is a death knell for what we knew of it.
The landscape of college football has changed more in three months than it has ever before, for better or worse, thanks to name, image, and likeness regulations, a possible playoff expansion, and this.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Texas and Oklahoma going to the SEC?
No, Texas and Oklahoma are not going to the SEC.
When would Texas and Oklahoma join the SEC?
I am not sure, but it is possible that the SEC could expand to Texas and Oklahoma in the future.
Is Oklahoma going to the SEC?
No, Oklahoma is not going to the SEC.