Conference expansion is inevitable, but the SEC should be mindful of possible pitfalls

·7 min read

Slam dunk. No-brainer. Sure thing. Pick your analogy to describe what will be the next major alteration to the college sports landscape.

And while all of those phrases would apply to the decision of Oklahoma and Texas to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference and for the SEC to accept two of the biggest names in college football, everyone should be mindful of history.

This won't be the first time a 16-team conference has been tried. The Western Athletic Conference famously expanded by six teams in 1996. Three seasons later, the conference imploded.

The first problem was that this was a marriage of convenience for many schools. The WAC was at 10 teams and seemed in a healthy position. But things were changing in college football.

The SEC had expanded to 12 teams and started the first conference championship game. Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993. The Southwestern Conference was falling apart with four teams joining the Big Eight to form the Big 12 for the 1996 season The WAC decided to swoop in and try to raise its profile by adding SMU, Rice and TCU along with Tulsa, UNLV and San Jose State. To try and deal with a league that stretched across four time zones and had schools thousands of miles from each other, four pods of four teams were created to create some geographic balance.

But it soon fell apart, sparked by the advent of the Bowl Championship Series in 1998. Eight school split off to form the Mountain West. The WAC eventually dropped football in 2012 before announcing this year its return as a Championship Subdivision league for the 2022 season.

This potential expansion for the SEC isn't an apples to apples comparison to the WAC. The SEC isn't falling apart and will remain the preeminent conference in football. However, there are some similarities that will ensure bumps ahead, even if everyone expects the road at the top to be smooth.

Cultural fit

The Alabama Crimson Tide and Florida Gators battle in the 2020 SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Alabama Crimson Tide and Florida Gators battle in the 2020 SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The SEC has been operating with 14 members for 10 years, so adding two won't be a shock in how it handles league matters. That said, it would be adding two members with very high-profile athletics programs and a high opinion of themselves. Texas ranks first in revenue generated and Oklahoma ranks eighth. They've been the two power brokers in the Big 12 with each school operating its own network that generated additional revenue. Given their outsized position in their current conference, how do they fit in with the SEC culture that is full of premier football schools that have won 11 of the past 15 national titles?

Texas' insistence on going forward with its Longhorn Network and perceived influence with the league office were major factors in the splintering of the Big 12 a decade ago with Missouri and Texas A&M joining the SEC, Colorado leaving for the Pac-12 and Nebraska exiting for the Big Ten. Now that influence will be drastically diminished. The ability for Texas to function in an environment where it is one voice among many and, in some cases, nowhere near the most-powerful voice is certainly going to be a massive change.

Oklahoma would seem to be a better fit given its obsessive focus on football. Its academic profile and the size of Norman fits comfortably with other league schools. Austin – with nearly 1 million residents – will easily become the largest city in the conference.

Competitive dissatisfaction

You put together 16 of the biggest athletics departments with rabid fanbases and an insatiable desire to succeed in football and there's one certainty: Lots of programs are going to be disappointed without a major reframing of expectations.

The first adjustment will come from the new teams. Oklahoma dominated the Big 12 with six consecutive conference titles and 14 overall in the league's 25 seasons. There's no chance that dominance will continue with greater competition. The Sooners have made four playoffs appearances – tied for third all-time. Only Alabama (six) has more in the SEC. LSU and Georgia – with one each – are the only other conference schools to be selected. Yes, the playoff field will expand, but the path isn't going to be easy. And the chance of earning a top four seed is more difficult in the SEC than the Big 12.

Texas is looking to rebound to its status as a national power, but that process got a lot more difficult when the schedule no longer will include Kansas State, TCU and Baylor – teams it struggled to beat – and has the added difficulty of Texas A&M and regular games against the likes of Alabama, Auburn, LSU and possibly Georgia and Florida.

The reframing also means more difficult games for the incumbent teams. Simply put, that means more losses which is going to be hard for the upper crust to accept. Going 9-3 and missing the playoff could still be a major achievement for Georgia, but too many seasons like that get coaches fired and create instability.

Teams near the bottom of the pecking order just got pushed down two spots, making an unlikely run to a conference title even more unlikely. Programs like Arkansas and Tennessee that have big expectations will find they'll have to accept lesser roles for the tradeoff of being in the biggest league. The money will be good, but is that enough to be a minor player on the stage? What's the point of playing in a conference you can never win?

Scheduling and travel concerns

The history of the SEC is built on rivalries. Previous expansion has made football scheduling difficult as it tries to incorporate those series into an enlarged conference that still plays just eight league games. Moving to nine or 10 conference games seems inevitable to create more value for the league and allow teams to play each other more often, but how does that get sorted out?

There's talk of four-team pods or two divisions of eight. Either way, some rivalries, like LSU-Florida or Alabama-Tennessee, could be endangered. Auburn and Georgia – the second-most played series in the Bowl Subdivision – is another marquee game that would want to be protected. There's sure to be some schools and fan bases that are frustrated with the outcomes as they get used to the new normal.

Oklahoma and Texas also stretch the travel concerns for many teams on the outer limits of the footprint. It's one thing to make one long trip during the season. But now you have several schools more than 1,000 miles from each other. They'll play in football and men's and women's basketball, baseball and other sports, adding to travel costs and time away from school.

This doesn't include the impact on the fans. Oklahoma supporters could easily drive to Oklahoma State or Kansas or TCU in a few hours or less. Now its closest conference member is Arkansas – almost 250 miles away. Besides Texas A&M, the nearest member will be LSU – more than 400 miles away.

Money

Ah, yes, the ultimate influence on college athletics and what is driving this decision for all parties. If the saying "more money, more problems" holds, then the SEC is going to be dealing with a lot of problems.

As Steve Berkowitz of USA TODAY Sports reported, the expanded league could generate close to $1.3 billion annually in revenue, which would be in the same neighborhood as the NCAA.

Now, finances are split equally among the 14 schools. And perhaps that can continue. But don't be surprised if there is dissatisfaction among the haves and have-nots. The value of the smaller schools is sure to be scrutinized in the future as college sports grow into super conferences.

Florida State, Clemson or even Big Ten schools could bring in more money in the future as the arms race among leagues continues. Would the SEC consider adding two or more to increase its profile but further contribute to the issues it currently is facing?

Follow colleges reporter Erick Smith on Twitter @ericksmith

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: SEC should heed possible pitfalls of 16-team expansion

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