Possible SEC Expansion? Examining the Candidates

Guess who doesn't have access to Photoshop today? Or a mouse?

According to reports - including a stellar series of work from Mr. SEC - the Southeastern Conference is looking at a possible expansion to 16 teams to counter the oft-suggested growth of the Big Ten. Rumor has it that four schools are on the league's wishlist, with two more vying for replacement spots should the league increase membership and find partners willing to ditch their current affiliations. The four primary candidates are Texas, Texas A&M, Florida State, and Clemson. The two backups appear to be Georgia Tech and Miami. Should the speculated scenarios arise, it would leave two super-conferences in the Big Ten (Big 16?) and SEC, with the ACC and especially the Big 12 scrambling to reload.

Let's focus on the SEC today, keeping in mind that these are just rumors for a slow week. An expansion to 16 teams would muddy some scheduling issues, but primarily spark some increased competition on the field and the recruiting trails. The addition of more teams would do little to water down pre-existing rivalries, but make strides in stoking the flames of new or dormant ones - especially in the cases of games like Florida-Florida State or Georgia-Georgia Tech. While members of a larger conference would have to share what would be a bigger spotlight, a lineup with four of the six aforementioned teams added would be a powerhouse across the three major sports (well, two major and one semi-major sport) and provide the greatest overall annual revenue that any conference has ever produced in NCAA history.

However, are these schools a fit for the SEC? The Southeastern Conference has bred one of the nation's most unique fan bases, and each of the 12 existing schools fills a role in the grand ballet that is the SEC. There's a certain southern charm that lines the competitive fire and fervent fanaticism in every school at the conference, and it's something that has to be considered alongside the concerns regarding TV markets, competitiveness, and academic profile. Though money is no doubt the bottom line, there still has to be some regard to how these schools would exist within the conference.

With that in mind, let's look at how each of the six (allegedly) proposed candidates stacks up:

Texas - The Longhorns' biggest assets are their competitive edge and their ability to bring a new and diverse television market to the SEC. Texas would bring another national championship pedigree to the league at the expense of leaving behind some heated rivalries. The Longhorns would have to make the Red River Rivalry a non-conference game and, combined with a SEC football schedule, Texas would be looking at one of the toughest slates year in and out. However, Austin is a football crazy town that would fit in well with the rest of the SEC's campuses, and while it's not a perfect match stylistically, the overall success of UT's athletic programs and the addition of a huge new market make the Longhorns a great pick-up.

The Longhorns would be the biggest prize, which is saying a lot when the league is also allegedly considering other former national champions like Florida State, Miami, and Clemson. Texas is the pot of gold, and the league's commitment to expand should revolve around them, and that includes extending invitations to join to other teams that would help spur a Longhorn transfer. Verdict?: Good match.

Texas A&M - Adding A&M would give the SEC West some additional strength and keep the Lone Star Showdown intact with Texas. It's fair to assume that the two Texas schools are a package deal, as they'd help solidify the Texas market (primarily Austin and Houston, but reaching across several states as well). While the Aggies haven't had the athletic success of their western neighbors, it's still a sports crazy school with a strong sporting tradition and a penchant for giant, loud football crowds. A&M's biggest impact would likely be in track and field, where they would spark up an instant rivalry with fellow powerhouse Arkansas. Interestingly, both Texas schools would be the instant leaders in overall endowment, as Texas (over $16b) and Texas A&M (over $6.6b) would blow away the SEC's leader (Vanderbilt - $2.8b).

A&M brings a passionate crowd and helps boost the move into Texas should UT be interested in a change of scenery, but the Aggies are clearly target #2 in the state. While on their own they would still introduce a new television market, they wouldn't fit organically into the SEC - which is why two Texas teams make more sense. Verdict?: Good match if paired with Texas, but just a consolation prize on their own.

Florida State - Like Texas A&M, Florida State boasts a shining athletic reputation that has recently dimmed. The Seminoles' bread and butter has been the gridiron, but lately the tail end of the Bobby Bowden era has left the program in flux, rife with mediocre records on the field and transgressions off it. Florida State has recently rekindled their rivalry with Florida, and match-ups against Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina would be yearly sell-outs on the football field, and Tallahassee's laid-back, tailgate-intensive environment would merge well with their potential Southeastern Conference league-mates.

State's defection would rob the ACC of their largest overall member and massive marketing revenues, both of which would directly benefit the SEC, even in the midst of the university's recent athletic slump. However, the recent scandals involving Florida State players may cause the league to think twice, as incidents at Tennessee and Alabama have given the SEC reason to worry about their reputation. FSU also gave us the cowgirls and Jenn Sterger, which was a treat for those of us with eyes and torture for those of us with the ability to read. That's a wash, I guess. Verdict?: Decent match, especially if FSU's basketball success continues to rise, Jimbo Fisher can bring the football program back to its on-field strengths, and the 'Criminoles' can continue to walk the fine line of good citizenship.

Clemson - Clemson, South Carolina, already has the feel of an SEC school. A campus in a southern town that's known almost solely for its university? Check. A monstrous stadium that emerges out of nowhere, fitted with its own nationally-known traditions? Check. Male students in boat shoes and beautiful women in sundresses? Check. Clemson's athletics are laden with southern tradition even though the team has settled into good-but-not-great territory across the major sports lately.

Rivalries would be another easy sell, as in-state rival South Carolina would be an easy sell, but games against Georgia and even Kentucky (after a pair of Music City Bowl match-ups) would also be easy sells. Academically the Tigers would fit into the upper echelon of the SEC, alongside Georgia, Florida, and potential members Texas, Texas A&M, Miami, and Auburn. Despite not adding a major television market or revenue hub, Clemson brings the feel of a SEC school along with solid performances on the field and off. The Tigers provide the most natural fit of any school mentioned amongst the six candidates. Verdict?: Great match stylistically, but not as profitable as other high-profile schools.

Georgia Tech - Tech's recent scheduling has made the Yellow Jackets seem like a SEC school already, as last season brought football games against Mississippi State, Georgia, and Vanderbilt. Georgia Tech brings strong athletic programs and would instantly give Kentucky and Tennessee fits in basketball recruiting with a team that consistently produces NBA players. The school's credentials both academically and athletically would both be boosts to the conference.

However, Georgia Tech doesn't stand to offer much in either television markets, retail value, or rivalry points. Recent scheduling has shown that match-ups with Georgia aren't tough to come by despite being in separate conferences, though rekindling the team's rivalry with Auburn would be a benefit of a move to the SEC. While Tech's Atlanta location would add a slight boost to television ratings in the area, that's a market that is already supported by the University of Georgia. And while bringing the Yellow Jackets into the fold would increase the brand value of the SEC, it would do little to attract casual fans in comparison to what other candidates like Texas, Florida State, or Miami would bring. 

While Tech makes sense from a competitive standpoint, their deficiencies to the league both stylistically and financially make them a less viable match than some of the other candidates mentioned here. Verdict?: A solid fallback option, but the Yellow Jackets lack the benefits that many other candidates for expansion would provide.

Miami - Less than a decade ago, the ACC pulled off a coup, stealing the Hurricanes from the Big East and turning the conference into what appeared to be a veritable football superpower. Unfortunately, the tale of Miami's ACC tenure sadly mirrors the career arc of Lindsay Lohan - starting with minor successes and the potential for big things, but falling into a pattern of curious behavior, criminal activity, arrests, and a nagging sense of lost potential. The Hurricanes are best known for their football program, but they'd also bring an elite caliber baseball team and surprisingly solid academic resume to the league, both of which would be benefits.

Though the Hurricanes aren't what they once were, they would bring a strong brand and strengthen the SEC's power in the state of Florida by expanding to the ever-growing south. However, stylistically Miami doesn't seem to be a fit, given a waning fanbase and still-burning bad reputation both on and off the field. How will fans react to a team jumping from major conferences twice in a ten year period just for a bigger payday? At what point does that tarnish a formerly bright football legacy? Moving Miami into a more difficult conference isn't the recipe that team needs to rebuild their vision of glory, and, despite the outstanding in-state rivalries that would emerge, could cheapen both the Miami name and the Southeastern Conference. While in the short-term this would be successful, the long-term risks stand to taint both a former powerhouse and its new conference. Verdict?: A bad fit now - but in time the Hurricanes could grow into a conference shift with a rebuilt football team (and off-the-field reputation) under Randy Shannon. Still, it's too early to jump ship again, especially after the poor results from their first conference change.

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