Recent reports state that the speculation has been confirmed - the Big 12 as we knew it is essentially gone. As soon as Nebraska accepts a bid to join the Big Ten - possibly Friday - the Pac 10 will be on the verge of SuperConference status. Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Colorado, and Texas Tech will all be shifting their alliances west in the Inland Division of the Pac-10 (Pac-16?). Meanwhile, the Big 12, along with standbys Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Baylor, and Iowa State would sit in limbo, on the verge of either rebuilding or dismantling altogether.
As the Pac-10 and Big Ten both reportedly get stronger, the pressure mounts on the Southeastern Conference who, despite being the most powerful athletic conference in the NCAA, would be faced with a serious challenge to their crown. Suddenly, the flawed conference out west will have patched their weaknesses and added six additional streams of revenue across three states with large markets. Even the Big Ten, despite adding a small television market in Lincoln, Nebraska, wins through the addition of a storied football program to a storied football conference. The SEC, despite the early rumors of expansion, now stands on the outside looking in.
There are several avenues that both the Big 12 and the SEC could take, including pulling from other conferences to add strength or rebuild altogether. Much has been made of a potential power play to snipe Clemson and Florida State (and, failing that, Georgia Tech and Miami) from the Atlantic Coast Conference, though that was in unison with stealing Texas and Texas A&M as well. The Big 12 could do the same by pulling from the Mountain West or WAC - adding Utah, TCU, BYU, Boise State, and a choice of Fresno State, Colorado State, Air Force, or New Mexico would be a competitive 10-team conference, though far from elite academically. As realignment becomes a (reported) reality, several options will shake down for the static or decimated conferences based on how things unfold.
But is there a scenario in which the SEC can benefit from this expansion directly? What could the Big 12's decimation offer the conference in terms of growth? Let's look at two of the likely possibilities should half the Big 12 bolt for the greener pastures of the Pac-10. These scenarios only reflect SEC expansion as a direct result of the reported alignment shifts to the west, so they don't include possibilities like reaching out to Georgia Tech or other rumored ideas. Remember, these are all projections.
Scenario 1: The Big 12 rebuilds through addition, leaving conferences like the Mountain West, WAC, and Conference USA in flux. In this scenario, the conference takes the same approach as the Big East did when raided by the ACC. With the promise of greater exposure, a higher level of play, and, most importantly, a bigger payday, the Big 12 continues to exist as a BCS caliber league with the addition of several high profile teams from non-BCS conferences. In this case, conferences like the Mountain West, WAC, and C-USA are the big losers, as they would face the losses of cornerstone members and face realignment/destruction themselves.
In this scenario, the only benefit to the SEC would be the increased availability of the teams from small conferences that the Big 12 didn't want or that chose to decline an invitation but still seek realignment. This would offer little in the terms of new members for the conference, unless they wanted Tulane back, or the possibility to add schools like Southern Miss, Louisiana Tech, Memphis, or Central Florida. In reality, these are all schools that fall below SEC standards, and even if the league did reach out to them, they likely wouldn't need opposing conferences to realign to secure a commitment.
While the Big 12 would poach some of the big name schools from smaller conferences, it wouldn't really stand to benefit the SEC. It would leave the league with the same problem it has now - a lack of high profile candidates in the region that aren't already attached to BCS conferences. Though schools like Memphis and Central Florida offer some benefits, it's clear that they aren't the prize in mind when considering expansion to a superpower.
Scenario 2: This is a less likely scenario than the first, but still possible. The Big 12, losing seven of 12 members, collapses in on itself. There are two years of awkward competition before the 2012 season as the conference plays out its final days, and then all teams formally leave. The conference, unable to lure high quality teams from other conferences before then, either folds entirely, or exists as a shell of itself, making it tempting for original members to jump ship back to a high prestige conference.
In this case, there are five candidates looking for new homes. A basketball powerhouse (Kansas), two teams with solid all-around athletic resumes (Kansas State, Missouri), one wild card project (Baylor), and one school whose athletic accomplishments continue to fade over time (Iowa State). Academically, every candidate is solid, if unspectacular. Endowment-wise, Baylor, Missouri, and Kansas stand above the rest.
However, amongst these five castaways, who - if anyone - would fit in the SEC? Baylor, a school comparable to Vanderbilt with their standing in the Big 12 thanks to its private status, small student body, and relative lack of athletic success might be a good fit. The Bears would expand the conference's television market, though to a smaller audience than any of the Big 12's other Texas schools, and boost the league's academic record. However, they would be only a complementary piece, and not the big ticket item that the SEC is looking for. Who would get excited for Arkansas-Baylor showdowns?
Would Kansas fit? Stylistically they wouldn't feel like a SEC school as much as Baylor would, but they would bring national prestige to a slumping basketball program within the conference, as well as a national following and instant marketability. However, with the exception of a flare-up from the football team in recent years, they would offer little athletically beyond that basketball pedigree and academically they'd fall in the middle of the pack. If the school were located in a greater media market, then they would be an easier sell, but it's tough to imagine Kansas as a cornerstone for expansion.
Kansas State and Missouri both present interesting options, though neither fit with the culture cultivated by 75 years of the Southeastern Conference. Missouri poses an interesting benefit as a team with connections to the Saint Louis/Kansas City markets, but clearly aren't prized as an addition, as evidenced by the Big Ten's current refusal to extend an invitation to the Tigers. Kansas State rates out as a fine middle-of-the-road addition, but would fail to offer the SEC anything new athletically or in terms of marketability.
Finally, Iowa State appears to be the biggest loser in all of this, as they offer little to a prospective conference. Without successful athletics, strong fanbase, or major television market, it seems apparent that they'll fall out of the BCS if the Big 12 ceases to exist.
So, in this scenario, the SEC would pick up a few prospects, but nothing close to a perfect match. Any addition would taint the original style of the conference, but could also hold the key behind great match-ups and huge marketing benefits. However, its difficult to see how these possible pickups would offer more than a potential raid of the ACC, which would help expand competition while keeping the SEC tradition alive. A combination of the two - as was rumored with Texas and Texas A&M previously, could be a better plan - imagine a lineup of Florida State, Clemson, Missouri, and Kansas joining the SEC. Therein lies the only potential direct benefit of the Big 12's possible demise - complementary pieces.
All in all, should the reports come to fruition, there doesn't appear to a significant immediate benefit to the SEC's rumored rebuilding plans. While their competition amongst BCS conferences would increase considerably, there wouldn't be much amongst the spoils of realignment that could boost the SEC beyond where it currently is. Adding a team like Kansas would be great during basketball season, but also produce some boring "rivalry" games across other sports. Baylor would be a strong addition thanks to their relatively strong academics, but they aren't going to sell many extra tickets or otherwise increase the league's marketability.
Though adding these potential castaways would provide a benefit, it wouldn't be the home run that the conference needs to achieve through expansion. As a result, the SEC's plans for the future should only be affected by the competitive aspect of this reported realignment, and not the orphaned schools as a result. It seems as though the only way that this could help the league is if the Big 12 disintegrates completely, and their leftover pieces fill in the gaps of a raid on some of the ACC's southern schools. At any rate, the SEC's superiority is about to be challenged, assuming Nebraska jumps ship to the Big Ten and the rest of the dominoes fall in place.
Regardless of what happens next, several options are going to arise for expansion - but the safest plan may be to ignore the easiest path and leave the remnants of the Big 12's gutting behind. While the realignment provides some nice pieces, they're merely complements to some of the pieces that had already been rumored before the reported Pac-10 expansion. Though the main prize is gone with Texas leaving, a more Southeast-centric expansion, including one or two solid acquisitions from the spoils of the Big 12, could be the right move for the conference. On their own, though, they're merely a fun distraction, or - as may be the case - a stark reminder of the price of a superconference.