There’s a confident nature among the collective of Southeastern Conference fan bases, and what their conglomerate represents. Having covered the league as a hometown beat writer for one of the oddball geographic teams in the league, Mizzou, and therefore having traveled to many of the other cities across the nation where schools representing one of the top leagues in America reside, you quickly understand the SEC mantra of “We’re better than you!” And you’re supposed to fall in line.
Even questioning the SEC’s place at the mountaintop of college athletics is sacrilege to some. Last month’s College World Series was contested between Ole Miss and Arkansas, both from the SEC West. In a few years, only Stanford and Notre Dame won’t represent the league among the eight 2022 teams to advance to Omaha. Heck, the Fighting Irish had to upset No. 1 overall seed Tennessee in the Super Regionals to avoid making it the Cardinal vs. a seven-pack of Greg Sankey’s future diamond minions.
Make no mistake, what drives the future of college athletics is one sport, football. And to pretend like any other sport moves the needle, even basketball, is foolish. Not even basketball with the almighty March Madness doesn’t do the trick. CBS owns the rights to the 68-team men’s tournament, ESPN televises the women’s showcase. FOX, alongside the “worldwide leader in sports” (gross), control college football’s non-Notre Dame Power Five Conference TV rights. CBS gets the Game of the Week from the SEC, which is a big get that’ll go away after the 2023 season.
That’s one reason why Thursday’s news of USC and UCLA departing the Pac-12 Conference for the Big Ten was landscape-changing. The 2020s version of conference realignment was kicked off with Texas and Oklahoma going from the Big 12 to the SEC, strengthening its brand with two prolific additions. Everything about bringing the Sooners and Longhorns into the fold made sense for domination. You add the Red River rivalry, expand the footprint of the conference, add schools that will spend money on athletics until they’re bankrupt and revive a few older rivalries. Mizzou, Texas A&M and Arkansas will benefit from that last part the most.
Even with going to 16 teams, the SEC still had an easy to see chunk of the country carved out. The Big Ten burst its own territorial bubble in the Los Angeles double dip. Part of the Great Lakes, Midwest and East Coast was nice. Let’s go to Hollywood? That unconventional wisdom might not have the on-field impact of the SEC’s move. In terms of the reaction from the rest of the college athletics universe, this move is even bigger than the Texas-Oklahoma purchase. Everyone not in the Big Ten or SEC is now an endangered species, or close to it, save Notre Dame for now.
Because the gridiron rules all, 12 of the last 16 national championships have been won by SEC teams. Three outliers are in the ACC (two are Clemson) and that pesky Ohio State championship to kick off the College Football Playoff era. You don’t think it bothered Big Ten country to see its class of the conference in 2021, Michigan, get smacked to shit by Georgia in the CFP semifinals? Improvements needed to be made quickly to not repeat the trend. That’s why conventional wisdom went out the window in listening to UCLA and USC wanting to join the fold, bringing both top leagues’ full-time membership total to 16.
If replicating the SEC’s gridiron success wasn’t enough proof to join their thoughts of buildup, looking at where the money in college athletics is going will. The next TV deal for the Big Ten is now guaranteed to be a number with three commas in it. In December 2020, the SEC launched a deal with ABC worth $300 million annually over a decade. That’s $3 billion. The Big Ten would be dumb to ask FOX in its next round of negotiations for anything less. The ACC, Big 12 and now the Pac-12 don’t have that bargaining power unless they all combine. Call it an “alliance.” That worked out before.
Should the SEC want to stay one step ahead and clearly be college sports’ dominant conference, the move is simple: start poaching the ACC. Clemson, Florida State, Louisville and Georgia Tech. All have a natural in-state rival already in the league. All are in the SEC’s footprint. All bring something tangible to the table. Clemson and Florida State’s brands are obvious. Having stronger roots in Atlanta would be ideal. Louisville is a strong, unique brand. Miami just doesn’t hold the same luster it used to.
The only factor I can see negating solely football-related personnel decisions would be adding a blueblood basketball program, which comes with a natural rivalry too. Duke and North Carolina would be ideal, maybe having NC State also join the fold. And to bring the group to an even number, give Kansas a call. You get another blueblood and have the Border War with Mizzou have interconference stakes for the first time in over a decade.
Sankey is a smart businessman. I’ve met him a few times. His ability to adjust is among the best in college sports. Here’s a big test for him though. The SEC’s mantra of being the best is entering uncharted territory, like all of college athletics. It’s act or be taken advantage of after Thursday’s seismic shift in college football. The only difference is now, the SEC doesn’t have the only blood in the battle.