SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey borrowed from Bob Dylan last summer at his conference’s media days when he teased what would soon sharpen into focus: “I'm going to leave you with this one last reminder: 'Times are changing,' Sankey said then. “It's not simply a song lyric. It’s a reality.”
Two days later, news broke of the SEC's plunder of the Big 12’s prized pieces, Oklahoma and Texas. That lit the fuse on a round of conference realignment that the Big Ten proved is far from finished when, last week, it seized Southern Cal and UCLA from the Pac-12.
With their new additions, the SEC and Big Ten will feature 16 teams.
Now, a different Dylan song title, recorded decades after the hit Sankey referenced, seems appropriate: Things have changed.
And they’re not done changing.
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Expect the SEC and Big Ten to continue their quest to build bigger, richer and more powerful mega conferences that morph the Power Five into the Super Two, while other conferences fight for scraps.
To retain its place atop college football’s throne, the SEC should be open to additional expansion opportunities, but handle with care.
Don’t add just to add. Focus on quality over quantity, and nurture the SEC’s well-manicured brand rather than diluting it.
Ask a fan of an SEC football team what they love about the sport and the conference, and they’ll note the rivalries, the culture, the pageantry, and the tradition. Those elements, combined with a quality on-field product, make SEC football special.
SEC football is red Solo cups in the Grove.
It’s singing Tom Petty in The Swamp.
It’s Kyle Field literally shaking in the din.
It’s Legend from Alabama sounding off on “The Paul Finebaum Show.”
It’s getting lit and eating crawfish at a tailgate in Louisiana.
It’s a black dress and cowboy boots in South Carolina.
It’s boats on the Tennessee River.
SEC football is woven into the tapestry of the South, and vice versa.
USC and UCLA enhance the Big Ten’s value (hello, Los Angeles media market), and, unlike past additions Rutgers, Maryland and Nebraska, they may boost the overall product. But the Big Ten’s persistent expansion efforts haven’t cultivated a defined identity or footprint.
Rutgers and UCLA are separated by 2,800 miles. They will call the same league home. Imagine being a Maryland volleyball player and having to travel to USC for a midweek conference match.
The SEC's various expansions have expanded its footprint without leapfrogging swaths of the country. Welcoming Texas and Oklahoma into a conference that houses Arkansas, LSU and Missouri makes sense in a way that bringing Piscataway and Hollywood under the same roof does not.
If the Pac-12’s leftovers seek an exit, leave them for the Big Ten or Big 12 to consider.
You won’t find a single Cracker Barrel or Waffle House in Washington state. Sorry, Huskies, your football program is respectable, but the SEC is not for you. Same for Oregon.
So, which schools would make sense for the SEC? Let the additions of Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Texas serve as a model for how to enhance the product while remaining on brand.
Clemson would be a slam dunk, although the ACC’s grant of rights deal that runs through 2036 could complicate an exit. Also within the ACC, Florida State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech would fit the SEC’s identity. Miami would stretch the footprint and break from the Southern college-town mold, but the Hurricanes boast football pedigree and would offer rivalry games against Florida and FSU, should the Seminoles join.
The SEC corralled the Oklahoma City media market by welcoming the Sooners, but Oklahoma State remains for the taking. The Cowboys would be a smart fit, and locking up Bedlam as a conference clash would please fans and television executives, alike.
Things have changed, but some things remain the same.
The SEC still possesses a well-crafted, recognizable, cherished and valuable brand, and when eyeing expansion opportunities, it should continue to keep that brand in mind.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY NETWORK: SEC football should consider further expansion on one condition