Texas A&M is joining the SEC. No, wait, they're not. No, wait, they - just not yet. And not without a partner.
The past week has been an awesome clusterf*ck of expansion rumors for the country's top football conference. Last week, claims flew that Texas A&M, a member of the rapidly diminishing Big 12, was in talks to join the SEC. This wasn't entirely surprising since the move had been briefly discussed last year, but those talks had ultimately led nowhere. As the weekend hit, reports suggested that the College Station school was set to leave the Big 12 for greener SEC pastures and begin play as soon as 2012. Questions surrounded the move, but those were soon dismissed after a league-wide vote kept the conference at 12 members for the time being.
The release behind the vote made the league's reasoning clear - without a true application for membership, the league couldn't accept A&M without subjecting itself to legal scrutiny. A&M, conversely, couldn't apply in the limited time given. This happened even though the university announced that it was putting its own interests in front of the fate of the Big 12, essentially dissolving any chance of a long-term union between the two. Basically, both sides came to the realization that they needed more time to do things properly - a task that would also include finding a 14th or 16th member to ensure things in the SEC run smoothly.
Instead, SEC fans will have to wait patiently as the expansion game sucks headlines from August practices and gives us something to think about other than the Larry Smith/Jordan Rodgers quarterback battle. Texas A&M's inclusion seems to be a probability right now, but the real challenge comes in trying to find the Aggies' partners in conference desertion. The ACC has emerged as a solid option to pillage, but in-state rivalries and an unwillingness to share markets may keep some of the league's strongest teams from even getting a courtesy invitation to the SEC's mixer.
Florida State was the big prize around the early rumor mill, but may have been a bargaining chip should the league eventually settle on a strong stylistic pick like Clemson instead. However, reported complaints from SEC East powers Florida and South Carolina may bar either team from getting the full Southeastern Conference treatment; neither team wants to add an in-state rival to the fold. Instead, Virginia Tech - in the untapped SEC market of Blacksburg, Virginia - could end up being the object of Mike Slive's woo-pitching as the 2011 academic year begins.
League officials have suggested that the SEC won't be going after their eastern neighbors for a 14th member, and though that might be a red herring, it's possible that the conference will look elsewhere to even up the East and West. Could Louisville be a possibility? What about scraps from Conference USA or the MAC? It's clear that the ACC holds the best fits for any conference expansion, but that's the highest-hanging fruit, and it will be the toughest to pick.
Let's get to what's important though; how will the current landscape of expansion affect the SEC's flagship institution*, the Vanderbilt Commodores. After the jump, we'll break down the four schools that rumors have targeted for expansion and look at how they'll affect Vandy and the SEC.
The Aggies are the leading candidate for the SEC West's open slot, and as such wouldn't affect the 'Dores as much as a direct competitor in the East would. Instead, the 'Dores would have occasional trips to College Station and a fleeting rivalry with A&M. Academically, the Aggies present the strongest option of any team mentioned for expansion, based on U.S. News and World Report data. A&M would currently place fourth in the conference if you were to list SEC schools by their national ranking. Additionally, their systemwide endowment would also dwarf Vandy's $3.01B fund, although the school's $5.1B mark doesn't apply solely to their main campus.
A&M's biggest strengths are where the Commodores are the weakest. The Aggies' recent record with Olympic sports, claiming national titles in outdoor track and being one of the Big 12's strongest women's swimming programs, would have little effect on the Commodores. While their football team still has a rabid fanbase and tough reputation, the team hasn't met the precedent of their own success in the 80s and 90s. For Vandy, they'd present a solid opportunity for a name-building upset with a young coach like James Franklin.
In all, a solid conference addition that doesn't step on the Commodores' toes and presents strong opportunities to boost Vanderbilt's athletic profile. The Aggies don't share many recruiting territories with Vandy and wouldn't create any problems that the team doesn't already fate with out-of-conference opponents and scheduling. Across all sports, they may have the strongest national profile of any potential SEC addition.
The Seminoles have the lowest academic ranking amongst the field of potential candidates, but they'd be tied for sixth in the SEC if you slotted them into the league's current configuration. Tallahassee has the southern school feel and football pedigree of a Southeastern Conference school, and FSU's marketability and current fan base makes them a strong addition to any media package.
As a probable SEC East member, Vanderbilt would see plenty of the Seminoles if they were to abandon the ACC. This would be bad news for football, relatively good news for basketball, and the creation of one hell of a rivalry for the baseball team. Florida State's reputation on the gridiron is slowly rising back up, and while they're still far from their mid-90s zenith, the team is still light years ahead of Vanderbilt.
However, baseball would be another story. After an epic 2010 Super Regional and behind the strength of two rowdy fanbases, the Seminole/Commodore annual series would be must-watch tv, even for casual baseball fans. This alone could make the addition of FSU a boon for the Vanderbilt faithful.
Of all the schools on the list, Clemson's campus is the one that feels the most like a SEC university. Sundresses, tailgates, and a stadium known as Death Valley make the South Carolina campus a natural fit for the conference. A solid academic reputation helps the school close the gap in athletics between other ACC rivals. Additionally, they'd give the Gamecocks their most heated in-conference rivalry and raise the stakes for a series that has twice ended with gridiron brawls.
Athletically, the Tigers are solid, if unspectacular, across the board. The football team has missed out on bowl season just one since 1996 and brings a national title with them. Their basketball program has developed into a perennial NCAA Tournament squad and their prospects would only improve by jumping to the weaker SEC. Their baseball program has been even stronger, making more than 35 Tournament appearances.
For Vanderbilt, the impact here would be close to Florida State's. Clemson would be a tough win in nearly every major sport the Commodores play. For a solid comparison, take a look at how the university has fared against South Carolina, a school with similar strengths, over the past five years. In all, it probably trends negatively for VU, but the battles and potential for rivalry here mean that fans would be in great shape. Of all the teams listed, the Tigers are probably the worst stylistic matchup for the 'Dores.
Endowment: $589.8 million
The Hokies have developed into a football presence and play in an area that hasn't yet been absorbed by the SEC's media markets. As a result, they've become a popular pick amongst rumors of expansion, despite having joined the ACC just seven years ago. A solid academic ranking, limited history of NCAA violations, and growing reputation as an athletic power make them an attractive addition. While Florida State and Texas A&M are most established, VT is the upside pick for any conference that is looking to tack on members.
Athletically, Tech would be a good fit for the Commodores. While their football team would smoke Vandy, the 'Dores would have the advantage in the three other major college sports - men's basketball, women's basketball, and baseball. Of the ACC schools, VT's addition would have the smallest negative impact on Vanderbilt's athletic prospects while raising the overall profile of the SEC.
Of course, the expansion possibilities go far beyond these four schools. If rumblings about avoiding the ACC are true, then Mike Slive and his crew of administrators will have to look elsewhere to even out their expansion. This will include schools stuck in the Big East, Big 12, and even Conference USA should the league's growth boil down to that. For now, it seems as though the shallow pool of candidates is mostly limited to the group above.
Some writers have suggested that any rumored expansion would be bad for Vanderbilt. From an athletic standpoint, that doesn't have to be true. Though the Commodores' football prospects are still building from the basement up, established success in major sports like basketball (men's and women's) and baseball means that big name competition - especially from programs that the 'Dores can consistently handle - will be a boost for the SEC's only private school. Though taking away a portion of BCS profits won't help, the added finances from the media contracts that will come with a burgeoning superleague will continue to make Vandy's presence in the SEC a lucrative one.
The SEC expansion won't cripple Vanderbilt athletically. In fact, there's a good chance that it makes things better for the 'Dores. However, there's still a ways to go before we can realistically analyze the true impact that any of these rumors would bring. Until then, we can only speculate about how many fans a Florida State game would bring to Nashville, or how a Clemson/Vanderbilt rivalry could mount across three seasons. For now, all we know is that the Commodores, barring something spectacular taking place, are in pretty good shape where they stand now.
*Relax. That's facetious.