With the Big 12 announcing earlier this week that it decided not to expand, it’s natural to wonder what the effects might be for the other power conferences. The Big 12 will see its grant of rights expire in the middle of the next decade, creating a window for its member schools to leave without penalty if they so choose.
The SEC already has two former Big 12 teams in its fold. It would be in position to pick up more members if the Big 12 falls apart. Before getting into who those teams might be, it is worth examining whether anyone will want to leave.
It is no secret that Texas and Oklahoma are the linchpins to Big 12 survival. Iowa State AD Jamie Pollard said as much on Tuesday. If the Longhorns and Sooners want the Big 12 to exist, it will continue on. If they give up on the conference, it will die.
Texas makes plenty of money from the Longhorn Network, even if ESPN doesn’t. UT’s income from TV right now is larger than any individual SEC member’s is even after the additional SEC Network revenue. Seeing as how every other power conference either has an all-inclusive conference network or, in the ACC’s case, will have one soon, Texas has nowhere to go that would allow it to keep the LHN.
The LHN contract runs through 2031, which is long after the current Big 12 grant of rights expires. Unless the payouts from the other conference networks far outpace what Texas gets from the Big 12’s TV deals plus the guaranteed LHN money, the Longhorns will probably want to stay in the Big 12 come the 2024-’25 academic year.
Oklahoma is another story. It and Oklahoma State seriously considered jumping to the Pac-12 in 2011 until the conference out west declined to take them.
It’s impossible to predict what OU will want eight years from now, because it will likely be under new management. The Sooners’ outspoken president David Boren is 75, and it seems probable that he will retire between now and the end of the Big 12’s grant of rights.
If the Big 12 does split apart, Oklahoma is the far more likely future SEC member among the big fish. I’ve seen enough reporting over the years to say that Texas will never consider moving to the SEC unless it has no other good options. It would listen to any of the Big Ten, Pac-12, and ACC, though I don’t know which one would be the Longhorns’ preference. Even if UT did want in, Texas A&M — and Arkansas, LSU, or any other school that recruits the state of Texas — could try to block it.
Adding one school creates an untenable membership of 15, so someone else would have to come along with OU. Oklahoma State would be the least messy option, but it would be out of step with the conference’s incentives.
Expansion last time around was an opportunity to build up the subscriber base for the soon-to-come SEC Network. Adding Texas and Missouri increased the population in the conference’s footprint by 53 percent based on 2011 estimates. None of the Big 12 states besides Texas is all that large, but the preferable goal would be to add multiple states.
The dream partner to Oklahoma would be Kansas. It would bring another new state, create a blockbuster basketball rivalry with Kentucky, and reignite the Border War with Missouri. KU would be a target for both the Big Ten and ACC, however, and I think it’d probably end up in one of those leagues.
West Virginia is another possibility, and the SEC is its best chance at remaining on the Power 5 level. WVU isn’t a geographic fit for the Pac-12, and its academics probably aren’t good enough to earn a Big Ten or ACC bid. Though the Mountaineers are a notable team in the revenue sports, the low population of their home state doesn’t promise much for the SEC Network. The SEC also reportedly rejected WVU as an expansion candidate last time around.
If Oklahoma’s partner for the SEC must come from a different state, West Virginia is more likely than Kansas State. KSU is less of a draw than WVU, and its football could face a steep drop-off once Bill Snyder retires for good.
Adding Oklahoma and West Virginia would make for an easy division setup. The Sooners could go in the West, and the Mountaineers would go in the East. Done and done.
If it’s OU and Oklahoma State, then divisional realignment would be necessary unless the SEC does what it did with Missouri. It could arbitrarily put one of the Oklahoma schools in the East and make the other its permanent cross-division rival in the West.
The obvious divisional realignment route would be moving Alabama and Auburn into the East and transferring Missouri to the West. It would make geographic sense, and it would allow for ending the permanent cross-division rival system. The system exists today largely to ensure that Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia occur every year. Having all of Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee in the same division would preserve the conference’s oldest rivalries without needing the permanent cross-division rival system. Ending that system would bring the benefit of teams in opposite divisions playing each other more often.
This realignment, however, would also create a tremendous imbalance in the divisions. Five of the six programs to win an SEC title since divisional play began in 1992 would be in the East. The new West would often look like a three-team race between LSU, Oklahoma, and Texas A&M, the programs that have won 16 of the 17 conference championships since 1992 among its hypothetical membership.
There also is the matter that two divisions of eight teams are less a conference than two separate conferences with a scheduling agreement. The old Big East had a BCS auto-bid with eight members, let’s not forget. Going to 14 schools has already altered the character of the conference, with non-permanent rival football teams in opposite divisions needing a dozen years to complete a full round-robin with each other. The league hasn’t yet felt the full effects of that change, but it will over the coming decades.
As much as college football has become a national sport, its heart is in the local rivalries. It’s at its best when the visitor section in Baton Rouge is full of rowdy Mississippi State fans who drove a couple hours from Jackson, not when the visitor section in Norman is mostly empty because Bulldog fans didn’t want to or weren’t able to fly to Oklahoma for the weekend.
This point goes back to something else Pollard said in that interview I linked above. He pointed out that realignment has yielded some bad fits such as Rutgers in the Big Ten and Boston College in the ACC where other fans in the league have no real feelings for newer members. Texas A&M has integrated well in the SEC, but anecdotally, it seems difficult to find anyone in the conference who cares much about playing Missouri. Certainly no one cares like Kansas did.
Oklahoma figures to fit in well with the SEC. Oklahoma State or West Virginia might end up like Mizzou, a team few others in the conference get excited over.
Ultimately, I don’t see the SEC going out of its way to try to lure Oklahoma into the fold. I’m sure it would consider trying to make something work if the Sooners want in, but the best thing for everyone would be if the Big 12 continues to exist long into the future.