One overarching narrative about the Southeastern Conference's quest to add a 14th team is that Mike Slive and the league's board of presidents won't be in a rush. Now, with the news broken that the Pac-12 won't be exploring expansion this year and that the Big 12 might be less dead than we originally thought, the SEC's timeline could extend even further into the future.
Is that the smart play?
Currently, conference expansion talk seems to have simmered. The Pac-12's announcement seems to have, at least temporarily, placed an air of stability over current alignment. Even the most aggressive party in the recent developments - the ACC - had been acting more out of self-preservation and protection when it poached Pittsburgh and Syracuse last week. This news could be the cooling factor after weeks of heated discussion.
This will leave a void of aggression that could remain unfilled until next year, much like what happened in 2010's Pac-10 expansion, or could be filled by a new player in the expansion game. However, candidates to make the next headline-making move aren't exactly jumping at the opportunity.
- The Pac-12 said that they're satisfied this year. Though they can always change their mind depending on how the remaining big dominoes of the Big 12 fall.
- The Big 12 looks like it will live on to see a few more seasons, even though Dan Beebe won't. They'll push to regain the strength they lost with Colorado, Nebraska, and Texas A&M jumping ship recently, but their cultural currency is reaching an all-time low. They don't have the status to pull any of the big-name teams that would consider the Pac-12, SEC, or ACC.
- Their most logical move would be to collude with the seven remaining members of the Big East's football side of operations. The Big East has even less cultural sway than the Big 12, and recent conference expansion talk has focused to FCS members thanks in part to their massive ranks when it comes to basketball and Olympic sports. The writing on the wall for the conference seems to suggest that it's either them or the Big 12 right now, as neither is likely to survive on their own while retaining a BCS bid if trends continue.
- The ACC is still the most active member of the discussion thanks to their play to grab Pitt and Syracuse. They'll have their own decision to make when it comes to accompanying schools like Connecticut and Rutgers. For league Commissioner John Swofford, the next decision he makes will likely decide whether or not another realignment frenzy starts up in 2011. Their next decision will have a rippling impact that could lead to a total restructuring of the BCS as we know it.
So where does that leave the SEC? The ACC has become the key player in this soap opera thanks to their defensive tactics against a potential SEC raid. In order to protect their turf, they not only increased their league buyout but also added two of the Big East's strongest teams as insurance. This not only bolsters their own strength, but puts another viable option from which Slive and his boys can poach. If the SEC were a zombie, the ACC not only stole the Big East's shotgun, but also knocked them down and took off running as the undead closed in.
The opportunity to be the aggressor in another round of BCS shakeups is there for the SEC. However, it doesn't look like the league will be taking advantage of the opportunity to find that elusive 14th team.
If the ACC rests where they are now, it appears likely that the SEC's deliberate approach will continue. Though rumors about West Virginia were floated and shot down, it seems that Mike Slive and his boys aren't all that interested in the Big East's orphans. The same seems to go for Missouri, a school that seemingly has everything a conference could want but hasn't been able to stir any official interest from either the SEC or Big Ten. Reports flew earlier this week that Mizzou had an invitation to join the Southeastern Conference, but that leak hasn't led to any major developments yet.
That brings us to the other wild card - a possible merger between the Big East and Big 12. The whole idea itself is a long shot. Even if it happens, it would take years to develop and implement. However, it's a pact that could take potential expansion candidates away from both the SEC and ACC. If the two leagues are left to compete for scraps in the face of realignment, things could get ugly fast.
A radical merger would leave teams vulnerable through the building period, and potentially even longer if Slive and Swofford decide to throw wrenches into the process (and let's face it, they probably would). The SEC's been steadfast on their commitment to deliberately finding the next university to add to their stable. The current state of realignment suggests that they'll have the opportunity to fulfill this ideal. However, is the landscape of potential universities really going to transform over time?
The SEC won't add a new member for the sake of adding one, but it's not as though this list of candidates will change dramatically from where they are now. While you can argue that allowing nation-wide realignment to settle would open new schools up for addition, it's unlikely that the universities that emerge will be the high-level suitors the league is looking for. Besides, the poaching of Texas A&M proved that they aren't afraid to pluck a cherry school from a struggling conference. Missouri, a school that supposedly has been waiting for a Big-12 life raft since 2009, isn't going to get more attractive - instead, they may just end up finding other deals. This wait could be detrimental in the long run, but the league seems tensely committed to their program.
Still, it's foolish to think that surprises won't happen - Pitt and Syracuse showed how quickly things can change in this landscape. But it's equally foolish to assume that Slive and company don't have a contingency plan for almost every scenario. Until a bombshell is dropped, the SEC will continue their slow and steady path to expansion. Why? Well, because they can.