September 26, 2011
No, you weren't hallucinating*: At last, Texas A&M is officially joining the SEC, swelling its ranks to 13 members next year. The Aggies held a "Kick-off Celebration" tonight in College Station to ring in the occasion. They're all the way in.
When they wake up tomorrow, they're going to start working with the SEC on the logistics of running a 13-team conference, and one thing is going to become abundantly clear: They're going to need to get to 14 teams, pronto, before the schedule-makers come down with vertigo.
By my count, there are roughly a dozen plausible candidates whose applications wouldn't immediately find their way into the bottom of the birdcage in commissioner Mike Slive's office. They are, in no particular order:
CLEMSON, FLORIDA STATE, GEORGIA TECH or MIAMI. These were probably the first four schools that crossed your mind the first time you heard the phrase "SEC Expansion," and they're probably the first few you can cross off the list. If the SEC is really taking this seriously, it's not going to be all obvious about it.
True, any one of the Southern wing of the ACC makes sense in its own way. Clemson and Florida State already look like SEC schools in terms of recruiting, facilities, fan base and a healthy, longstanding hatred for in-state SEC rivals. Florida State has hinted it's open-minded toward whatever, man. Some old-school SEC fans more or less consider Clemson one of their own. Georgia Tech actually was one of them for 31 years. Miami has an instantly recognizable national profile. But they're all incompatible in their own ways — Georgia Tech doesn't spend or recruit on an SEC level, Miami is a relatively small private school with an even smaller support base — and in one big way: They're all located in states/television markets already dominated by an SEC mainstay. If "growth" and "expanding the regional footprint" are priorities, and by all accounts they are, merely annexing the next neighborhood over seems like a waste of a perfectly good opportunity for imperialism.
MARYLAND, NORTH CAROLINA or N.C. STATE. Moving north a bit, the Terrapins, Tar Heels and Wolfpack all offer an opportunity to expand the conference footprint into new states without sacrificing coherent geography. But that's about it: As prospective SEC football schools, well, they're ACC basketball schools. With the ACC's fat new television contract and hoops-friendly expansion to 14 schools itself, they have no more incentive to want out than the SEC does to pursue them.
NOTRE DAME. OK, even in this exercise, the Irish don't qualify as a "plausible" candidate. But NCAA bylaws stipulate that they must be mentioned — and subsequently dismissed — in any and all major expansion scenarios. And because the idea of Notre Dame joining the SEC is hi-larious.
TCU. Always a champion for the little guy, Yahoo! colleague Dan Wetzel suggested last month that the SEC double down on its Texas invasion by snapping up the Horned Frogs before they make their long-awaited leap to the Big East next year. But major-market roots and temporary national relevance notwithstanding, I would have never come up with TCU as a potential SEC candidate on my own: It's not historically competitive, it's dominated by Texas in the Dallas-Fort Worth market and its soon-to-be expanded stadium will still be the smallest in the conference outside of Vanderbilt. Winning the Rose Bowl is nice and all, but for now, the Frogs are still hoping the Big East survives with its automatic BCS bid intact.
Besides, if the SEC was interested in plucking another pillar from the Big East, it would be…
WEST VIRGINIA. The Mountaineers are consistently competitive in football and basketball, play in a reasonably large (and unreasonably loud) stadium and already recruit all over the Southeast, particularly in Florida. They also play in a low-population state that offers nothing in the way of a major media market or recruiting grounds, and have no academic profile to speak of. (If we're still pretending anyone actually cares about academics.) All of that is also true of, say, Mississippi State, which has been in the fold from the beginning. But what would be the point of adding another Mississippi State?
Based on the initial returns, there's a better-then-even chance the Mountaineers have already been rejected.
VIRGINIA TECH. Of all the possible ACC candidates, Virginia Tech is the only one that combines a) Football madness, b) Access to a new state, and c) Shallow roots in the conference. Which is why the rumors reached the point last month that a university spokesman felt compelled to dismiss them on the record as "total poppycock":
"…How many times do we have to say it? If one of these rumor mongers, would be willing to cite their 'multiple sources,' it might lend some credence. Frankly, we're tired of other people telling us what our future is.
"We are not interested. Nothing has changed. My president will not dignify wild speculation. Our last statement [from Aug. 12] still stands. Bottom line: this is not on our radar screen."
If that's a bluff, it's a pretty good bluff: The Hokies haven't come up in any reports that pretend to be anything other than idle speculation since.
OKLAHOMA. The Sooners are an interesting case: They'd be a blockbuster addition, and they clearly have deep, fundamental issues in the Big 12 that forced them to begin planning an official escape route. Had OU concentrated its efforts to the east after A&M flew the coop instead of the west, the prospect of adding another bona fide national power might have been impossible to turn down.
Still, the Pac-12 managed to resist, and Oklahoma responded to the rejection by recommitting to the Big 12 with such gusto that it could plausibly deny it ever wanted out in the first place. Suddenly, the Sooners are leading the revival, and the odds they would put themselves out there again so soon — especially when they're tied at the hip with Oklahoma State — are virtually nonexistent. Even if they did, at this point, the stench of desperation might just overpower the latent attraction.
Which brings us to…
MISSOURI. SEC fans aren't exactly enthralled about the prospect of disrupting longstanding rivalries for road trips to Columbia, Mo., and Tiger fans seem to be thinking "I can't really blame them." But Mizzou was the one school last week that openly defied the Big 12's brief Kumbaya moment after the Pac-12 told Oklahoma "Thanks but no thanks," insisting it planned to keep exploring its options as long as there are options to explore. That was less than 48 hours after it was reportedly offered an informal invitation to the SEC once the Big 12 started to crack. Now that the league looks like it's going to hold together for the foreseeable future, the Tigers have still refused to let the dream die.
Geographically and historically, Missouri's not a natural fit — the Tigers haven't won a conference championship in football since the late sixties — but it's on the upswing competitively, it provides access to new markets and recruiting grounds in Kansas City and St. Louis and it is ripe for the picking. If a 14th team is inevitable, the thought process may have already bypassed "Why Missouri?" and arrived at "Why not?"
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*At least, you weren't hallucinating about Texas A&M joining the SEC. If you also recall listening to a sombrero-doffing Dennis Franchione give a deadpan reading of the lyrics to "The Macarena," you're on your own.
Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.