Teams change conferences. It’s a fact of college football life. The more football-obsessed members of the Southern Conference left to form the Southeastern Conference in the 1930s. Conference USA has had almost as many different members at one point or another (24) as years of existence (25). Forty-two schools have called themselves members of the WAC at some point, with a 43rd (Southern Utah) on the way.
Never in the history of college football conference realignment, however, has there been a potential earthquake the magnitude of Oklahoma and Texas possibly the Big 12 in favor of joining the SEC. the two schools took the first step on Monday, announcing they will not be renewing their grants of media rights following expiration in 2025.
There are still plenty of unknowns. We don’t know when the Sooners and Longhorns might leave the Big 12. We don’t know what the Big 12’s remaining programs will do. We don’t know for sure how much money will be involved in the departure, how much this superpowered SEC might rake in, or how much remaining Big 12 programs stand to lose.
We should still take the time to reflect on this moment — what it means and, indeed, what might happen next if the Horns and Sooners are indeed bound for the SEC. Here are eight takeaways, as it relates to everything from the SEC to the Big 12 to Notre Dame and much more.
The SEC could be as strong as it’s always thought it was
We’ve seen plenty of noteworthy moves through the years — it’s been only a decade since the Big 12’s original heavyweight, Nebraska, left for the Big Ten, after all — but this is enormous. In Oklahoma, the SEC is adding the six-time defending Big 12 champion and a team that ranks fourth in average SP+ rating over the past five years. The only way the SEC could have added a better football program than OU is if it had gone after Ohio State or Clemson.
In Texas, the SEC gets a football program that has struggled of late by its own standards. The Longhorns rank 20th in average SP+ over the past five years (behind soon-to-be-former conference mate Oklahoma State, among others), and they’ve finished better than 19th in the AP poll just once in the past 11 years.
That said, (a) the Horns won the Learfield Cup (awarded to the most successful overall athletic program) for the first time this school year after taking home three team national titles, and (b) their football program still ranks 20th in average SP+ over the past five years. That’s not exactly horrible!
This move will give the SEC eight of the top 20 football programs, per 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 programs (Kentucky, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee) that have ranked in the SP+ top 25 at least once in that span. Only Arkansas and Vanderbilt haven’t done so, and Arkansas was 14th six years ago.
The SEC has regarded itself as the NFL’s AAA affiliate for a while now, and it’s worked pretty well as a recruiting sales pitch. For the multiyear recruiting averages I compile for SP+ projections, six of the top 15 recruiters were from the SEC, as were 11 of the top 30. Now it’s eight of the top 15, and the other eight programs all have an even stronger “come here to play against the very best” pitch to make.
Bottom line: When I looked back at the past seven years and projected how a proposed 12-team College Football Playoff would have worked, the SEC would have likely gotten at least three teams in the field in five of seven years, and four teams twice. Now it will be expecting four to five per year, and it will frequently hit that mark.
Texas isn’t going to strong-arm the SEC
By the early 1990s, it was clear that the Southwest Conference was in serious trouble. Arkansas had left for greener and far more stable SEC pastures, and with the conference occupying only about 7% of the United States’ TV audience — the SEC and Big Ten were well into double digits — while Texas and Texas A&M were the only programs with national notoriety, there was no draw for television revenue. UT and A&M were very much exploring their options, and the SWC looked for ways to entice them to stay.
One idea was a scheduling agreement with another conference like the Big 8 or WAC (because regular San Diego State-Rice matchups would have saved the day, for sure). Another was changing the distribution of revenue to favor the bigger schools; home teams could keep their own gate receipts, for instance.
Obviously, this didn’t work. In early 1994, the creation of a Big 12 conference, featuring the Big 8’s membership and the top half of the SWC’s, was announced. But Texas had come to really enjoy the “we keep what we make” approach and strong-armed the conference to keep the conference’s playing field uneven for decades, even while bigger and more financially successful conferences such as the SEC and Big Ten (among senior members, at least) distributed media revenue equally.
The dissent that stemmed from that, not to mention the creation of the Longhorn Network within the ESPN family, also helped to prompt four of the conference’s original schools — including the SEC’s Texas A&M and Missouri — to leave the Big 12 in 2010-11.
The SEC is not the SWC or the Big 12. Revenue from media rights and what-not is indeed distributed evenly and will, with almost 100% certainty, continue to be distributed evenly. Not even Alabama can strong-arm the conference to get its way on a given issue.
Again, there’s new leadership at Texas. The new UT isn’t necessarily the old UT. But it’s going to be fascinating to see if and how this new marriage works.
More money doesn’t equal happiness
Matt Brown of the great Extra Points newsletter went on a very useful rant last week on the “Going for Two” podcast that he hosts with Bryan Fischer. He acknowledged that at lower levels of the sport, revenue upgrades can lead to specific changes that improve the athlete or student experience — higher scholarship levels, lower student fees, etc. — but noted that it’s very different at the top level of the sport.
“Did any Big Ten school, and for that matter, literally any Power 5 school over the last decade add a single sport that increased scholarship opportunities for athletes?” he asked. “The answer is no. … What did happen is, a bunch of coaches got a lot more money, a bunch of facilities that don’t really improve recruiting got built to the point where freakin’ Northwestern has a space station and is recruiting almost exactly the same kind of athlete as it was before because it’s Northwestern.”
Texas was already winning the Learfield Cup (and struggling, relatively speaking, at football). OU was already a nearly annual CFP presence and a powerhouse in other sports like softball. They both will have more impressive home schedules to sell to fans, but they were already selling lots of tickets. And in this instance, OU might be voluntarily forfeiting a nearly annual bye in a future 12-team CFP with this move.
One of the biggest things to watch moving forward, actually, is whether any of the proposed elements of a future 12-team playoff now change because of this move — namely, the requirement that the top four seeds (and first-round byes) continue to be reserved for conference champions. It was honestly one of my favorite parts of the proposal, but if the SEC is looking at having one third of the 12-team field or more, it might be able to apply pressure to get that clause removed. If it doesn’t, then while OU will likely continue to land in plenty of CFPs moving forward, it will be doing so as a No. 6 or No. 10 seed, for example, and not a No. 3. Maybe that’s a worthwhile trade; maybe the opportunity to tailgate with LSU fans and occasionally visit the Grove is worth diminishing your odds of winning a national title. But it’s not hard to see some discontent on the horizon, too.
We’re not even THINKING about keeping divisions, right?
When the SEC expanded from 10 to 12 teams in the early 1990s, it took the innovative step of creating divisions and instituting a conference championship game. The six westernmost teams made up the West, the easternmost made up the East, each team got a permanent annual rival from the other division, and off they went. It would soon become the norm.
When the league moved from 12 to 14 teams in 2012, it kept the status quo mostly intact — six-team divisions turned into seven-team divisions. Texas A&M joined the West, and Missouri joined the East (which, thanks to the presence of nearby Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee, made more geographic sense than at first glance).
The limits of divisions quickly became obvious, though. Georgia has yet to visit Texas A&M a decade into the Aggies’ SEC existence, and LSU wasn’t scheduled to visit Missouri until 2023 before last year’s schedule adjustments brought the Tigers to Columbia. When you’re playing an eight-game conference schedule with six division games, a permanent rival and only one other cross-division foe, you barely have a connection with nearly half your conference.
It would be easy enough for the SEC to simply add OU and Texas to the West Division, move a team like Auburn to the East (with Alabama as its new permanent cross-division rival, obviously) and call it a day. But that would exacerbate an already tenuous issue. Auburn and teams like LSU would go from playing every year to playing once or twice a decade.
I’ve long espoused the idea of ditching divisions in favor of a pod structure, and the idea becomes not only relevant but practically necessary in a 16-team conference.
“Pods” could mean a couple of different things:
1. Four-team pods with rotating schedules. When the WAC expanded its football membership to 16 schools in 1996, it created four geographic quadrants of four teams each (Rice, SMU, TCU and Tulsa, for instance) and crafted schedules around the idea of playing your quadrant every year and playing the other quadrants in a rotating fashion. Granted, the WAC was still far too geographically and culturally dispersed for the experiment to work, but from a scheduling standpoint the idea was intriguing.
The morning after the Texas-Oklahoma rumor leaked, the SEC Network provided an example of how four-team pods might work in the new conference.
SEC Network, the league’s own TV channel, has some ideas. pic.twitter.com/MSnth9IYMM
— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) July 22, 2021
Granted, it would be pretty strange to have Texas and Texas A&M in different pods, but this general approach — nine-game schedules with three permanent rivals and rotating games against teams in each other pods — would serve a clear purpose. You could play most of your chief rivals annually, and you’d get to play everyone else twice every four years. That feels like a conference!
Everyone’s got a slightly different set of rivals, however. You don’t have to commit yourself to four rigid pods.
2. Three permanent rivals for each school. You could basically create individualized pods and maintain most of each team’s permanent rivalries.
Here’s my stab at how that might take place:
Alabama’s permanent rivals: Auburn, Mississippi State, Tennessee
Arkansas: Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas A&M
Auburn: Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina
Florida: Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee
Georgia: Auburn, Florida, South Carolina
Kentucky: Florida, Mississippi State, Missouri
LSU: Ole Miss, Texas, Texas A&M
Mississippi State: Alabama, Kentucky, Ole Miss
Missouri: Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma
Oklahoma: Arkansas, Missouri, Texas
Ole Miss: LSU, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt
South Carolina: Auburn, Georgia, Vanderbilt
Tennessee: Alabama, Florida, Vanderbilt
Texas: LSU, Oklahoma, Texas A&M
Texas A&M: Arkansas, LSU, Texas
Vanderbilt: Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee
Is this perfect? No, and I’m not sure perfection exists in an environment in which some schools have only one or two teams they absolutely have to play each year and others, like LSU or Tennessee, have about eight. I’m sure there would be dramatic negotiations (and maybe fistfights) when it comes to who gets paired up with whom, but there’s consolation in the simple fact that, whomever you don’t draw permanently, you still play every other year on average.
Here are a couple examples of the schedules that this individualized pod arrangement would produce if there was a corresponding move to nine-game conference schedules*. I used five-year SP+ averages to achieve the most balanced possible strength of schedule from team to team.
(* If the SEC were dead-set on maintaining eight-game schedules, you could achieve the same “play everybody twice in four years” balance by limiting teams to two permanent rivals.)
Here’s what Oklahoma’s schedule would look like:
Year 1: Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky, LSU, at Florida, at Mississippi State, at Missouri, at South Carolina, vs. Texas
Year 2: Georgia, Missouri, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, at Alabama, at Arkansas, at Tennessee, at Texas A&M, vs. Texas
Year 3: Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi State, South Carolina, at Auburn, at Kentucky, at LSU, at Missouri, vs. Texas
Year 4: Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas A&M, at Arkansas, at Georgia, at Ole Miss, at Vanderbilt, vs. Texas
This guarantees only maybe one marquee “top 10 vs. top 10” home game per year on average, and it certainly adds some brutal road trips to the docket, but the combination of importance and novelty probably means that most OU fans would look at those schedules quite favorably.
What about current SEC members? How would their schedules look with two new conference mates and no divisions? We’ll use Auburn as the guinea pig.
Year 1: Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Texas, at Georgia, at Kentucky, at Missouri, at Oklahoma
Year 2: Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss, Tennessee, at Alabama, at Florida, at South Carolina, at Texas A&M, a Vanderbilt
Year 3: Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, at Arkansas, at Georgia, at Mississippi State, at Texas
Year 4: Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, at Alabama, at LSU, at Ole Miss, at South Carolina, at Tennessee
Again, this feels so much more like a conference, doesn’t it?
I’m still not going to project the “four 16-team superconferences” scenario we’ve all been predicting for years …
… but if it is ever to happen, “OU and UT to the SEC” is the first step.
This has been a discussion topic since the last round of realignment, but once the Pac-16 idea fell through, the math never really worked for me, primarily because I couldn’t see OU leaving the Big 12. (I could definitely see Texas leaving, but I thought independence was as likely a result as anything.)
With the Sooners and Longhorns jumping to the SEC, you can definitely see a path now. The Big Ten adds two remaining Big 12 programs, the ACC adds two (or one plus Notre Dame), the Pac-12 adds four, and bang, four 16-team conferences.
Which program does the Big Ten take, though? Maybe Kansas for basketball purposes, but who else? Will it decide that Iowa State is a worthwhile addition even though it already has an Iowa presence (and an Iowa presence already doesn’t add much from a revenue standpoint)? Will it decide that going after TCU and dabbling in the Texas market is worth geographic discontinuity and increased travel costs? Would it pursue an ACC program instead? Would it decide that 15 teams is fine?
It’s the same question with the ACC. While Baylor and Kansas would both obviously raise the basketball profile for a basketball-friendly conference, West Virginia is the only Big 12 program that would make geographic sense. And it probably goes without saying that permanently adding Notre Dame would be Priority No. 1 there anyway.
The “four 16-team conferences” math suddenly makes more sense than it ever has, but I’m still not 100% confident in the logic. If every conference suddenly accepts that we’re headed toward a “four superconferences” universe, then maybe they make their draft picks and go from there. But since there’s no one actually in charge of college football, there’s no one to dictate it happening, and there aren’t many marquee moves left for a conference to make if it’s working of its own volition.
That said, if you’re looking at a future where top-division college football’s membership is culled a bit, as it was in the early 1980s, and a 130-team FBS turns into something more like an 80-team subdivision with the power conferences and the best from what we currently call the Group of 5, this move certainly both consolidates the SEC’s place atop the totem pole and forces others to move in response. And if the “pay for play” movement continues to gain ground, this would assure that SEC schools are in the best possible position for paying their athletes (and therefore inducing the best athletes to come and play for them) in the future.
(It would also leave them just a brand or two away from being able to basically form a “Super League” if the financial shifts we’ve seen in European soccer continue to find their way in this sport. But that’s far too gross to think about right now, so forget I mentioned it.)
What say you, Notre Dame?
Indeed, in the fight for long-term power and revenue, this is a possible death blow for every conference not named the SEC. Having about half of the biggest brands in college football is going to be impossible to top, even if some of those brands are guaranteed to go 8-4 or worse in a given year.
Barring some sort of wild merger — the Big Ten and Pac-12 somehow joining forces, for instance — or the SEC deciding to keep right on expanding and adding Clemson or something, the biggest remaining move on the chess board might be what happens with the program in South Bend, Indiana. Aside from its temporary 2020 ACC membership, Notre Dame has been the biggest free agent on the market for nearly a century now, but after a series of failed pushes to join the Big Ten in the early 20th century, it has been more than happy to live life as an independent. That remained the case even in reaction to a 12-team playoff giving byes only to conference champions. (Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick was actually on the subcommittee that came up with the proposal.)
Does Notre Dame’s resolve hold steady in the face of not only the SEC’s expansion but potential expansion in the ACC and Big Ten as well? And if the school were to change course and pursue permanent football conference membership, would it indeed choose the ACC (where all of its other sports already reside), or would the Big Ten’s higher level of quality and revenue potential change the equation? I assume the ACC remains the preference, if anything, but it’s a plot point.
It’s really hard to make the case that this is good for college football
OU’s and Texas’ bank accounts will get even larger than they already were; odds are good that existing SEC members will see a healthy increase in revenue, too. And full disclosure: ESPN would probably benefit mightily from this arrangement, as well.
It’s impossible not to worry about the overall college football ecosystem, though. This indeed gets us closer to some horrible Super League arrangement in the future (dang, sorry, I mentioned it again), and while money had obviously long been the primary motivator for action in college sports, this takes us even further down that road.
In the short term, however, it does something even more destructive: It definitively tells quite a few programs in the Big 12 that they simply don’t matter.
Since 2009, Texas’ last season as a national title contender, Oklahoma State (101), TCU (93), Kansas State (85), Baylor (84) and WVU (81) have all won more games than UT’s 78. Texas Tech has either matched or exceeded the Horns’ win total four times in that span; Iowa State has done so twice in the past four years and is coming off of a top-10 finish, its best ever. Texas indeed strong-armed the conference for decades and was allowed to start its own network within the ESPN family, and none of it helped the school to achieve a competitive football advantage. And yet, because of financial might, UT still got to decide to blow up the conference and leave eight other programs to fight for scraps and far diminished revenue.
In a word, that stinks. And it could result in some successful schools struggling even more to keep up with the pack … and some active and passionate fan bases losing interest because the game is so blatantly rigged against them. College football is at its best and healthiest when the largest possible number of programs are engaged and excited and feel like meaningful members of the college football universe; moves like this assure the opposite.
To the Big 12’s remainders: Remember the Sun Belt
In the lingering years of the last REALIGNMENTPALOOZA period, following the big power conference moves, what would become known as college football’s Group of 5 made moves of their own. The Big East, raided by other conferences, added some programs and ended up rebranding as the AAC. Conference USA added decent brands like Louisiana Tech in 2013 and Western Kentucky in 2014, but it also aggressively attempted to acquire market potential. It went after FAU and FIU as an approximation of the Miami market, UTSA for San Antonio, North Texas for Dallas and Middle Tennessee for Nashville. Charlotte created a football program and joined C-USA, too.
In the early 2010s landscape, the idea of building around television markets certainly carried some weight. But in the years that followed, quite a few of these programs struggled to actually play good football. Meanwhile, in response to the loss of quite a few of its programs to C-USA, the Sun Belt responded by acquiring … good, well-supported football programs. It added storied FCS programs Appalachian State and Georgia Southern in 2014, then brought Coastal Carolina up two years later.
The result: The Sun Belt has had a higher average SP+ rating than Conference USA, the conference that raided it, for five of the past six years. It has had six teams finish higher than 40th in SP+ in the past three years; Conference USA hasn’t had one since 2016. Had a 12-team playoff been instituted in time for the 2020 season, Coastal Carolina would have been a part of it. The Sun Belt recently announced an expanded TV deal with ESPN.
I bring this up as a reminder: Even in a universe with a nuclear-powered SEC, there will be lots of exciting, non-SEC football to be played. The Big 12’s eight remaining teams should keep excitement and true football quality in mind as much as humanly possible.
To be sure, money is obviously important. If some wild merger with the Pac-12 to form some sort of Pac-18 or Pac-20 is on the table and would assure that everyone can still earn $35 million per year or something similar in media revenue, then that trumps everything else. But those numbers probably won’t check out. If a majority of the Big 12’s remaining programs are left to choose between, for instance, joining an expanded Pac-12 for slightly more money or remaining in a Big 12 and adding some AAC programs and/or independents to the mix — for this example, we’ll say some combination of Cincinnati, BYU, Memphis, Houston, SMU and maybe the Mountain West’s Boise State — the latter should be taken seriously for a few different reasons.
1. As things currently stand, the Big 12 still has Autonomy Five designation and could hold on to that by simply adding more teams.
2. If the proposed 12-team CFP indeed continues to give top seeds to conference champions only, a champion of this Big 12 would have excellent odds of regularly earning playoff byes.
3. Travel costs would be cut immensely. That will obviously have to be taken into consideration even if a Pac-18 would result in more incoming revenue.
4. Adding Cincinnati, BYU, Memphis and maybe others to a conference with perhaps Oklahoma State, Iowa State, TCU, etc.? Are you kidding me? This conference would be fun as hell! That’s not to say that we wouldn’t get some fun Oklahoma State-Oregon matchups or something with a Pac-12 merger, but this new Big 12 would have a football identity, tight and meaningful conference races and quite a bit of quality. Last year’s conference race, for instance, could have featured teams ranked seventh (BYU), eighth (Cincinnati), 11th (Iowa State) and 23rd (Oklahoma State) in SP+.
It would be a pretty ruthless basketball conference, too, especially if Houston were involved.
This expanded Big 12 would be the most watchable conference in football — a Sun Belt for the power conference level. That doesn’t matter as much as cold, hard cash does, but it means more than we realize in our more cynical moments.
It took about four years for the Big 12 to take shape, from the SEC announcing in December 1989 that it was looking to expand and eventually taking Arkansas (which dramatically increased the SWC’s already high instability), to the conference’s official announced formation in early 1994. The conference survived the loss of four founding members, the threat of a Pac-16, the Longhorn Network and constant instability. But the departure of Oklahoma and Texas is a death knell to what we knew of the Big 12, even if it does live on in name.
Between name, image and likeness rules, a potential playoff expansion and this, the landscape of college football has shifted more in three months than it ever has before, for better and/or worse.