Teams change conferences. It’s a fact of college football life. The more football-obsessed members of the Southern Conference left to form the Southeastern Conference in the 1930s. Conference USA has had almost as many different members at one point or another (24) as years of existence (25). Forty-two schools have called themselves members of the WAC at some point, with a 43rd (Southern Utah) on the way.
Never in the history of college football conference realignment, however, has there been a potential earthquake the magnitude of Oklahoma and Texas possibly leaving the Big 12 in favor of joining the SEC. The two schools took the first step on Monday, announcing they will not be renewing their grants of media rights following expiration in 2025.
There are still plenty of unknowns. We don’t know when the Sooners and Longhorns might leave the Big 12. We don’t know what the Big 12’s remaining programs will do. We don’t know for sure how much money will be involved in the departure, how much this superpowered SEC might rake in, or how much remaining Big 12 programs stand to lose.
We should still take the time to reflect on this moment — what it means and, indeed, what might happen next if the Horns and Sooners are indeed bound for the SEC. Here are eight takeaways, as it relates to everything from the SEC to the Big 12 to Notre Dame and much more.
The SEC could be as strong as it’s always thought it was
We’ve seen plenty of noteworthy moves through the years — it’s been only a decade since the Big 12’s original heavyweight, Nebraska, left for the Big Ten, after all — but this is enormous. In Oklahoma, the SEC is adding the six-time defending Big 12 champion and a team that ranks fourth in average SP+ rating over the past five years. The only way the SEC could have added a better football program than OU is if it had gone after Ohio State or Clemson.
In Texas, the SEC gets a football program that has struggled of late by its own standards. The Longhorns rank 20th in average SP+ over the past five years (behind soon-to-be-former conference mate Oklahoma State, among others), and they’ve finished better than 19th in the AP poll just once in the past 11 years.
That said, (a) the Horns won the Learfield Cup (awarded to the most successful overall athletic program) for the first time this school year after taking home three team national titles, and (b) their football program still ranks 20th in average SP+ over the past five years. That’s not exactly horrible!
This move will give the SEC eight of the top 20 football programs, per SP+ five-year average — No. 1 Alabama, No. 4 OU, No. 5 Georgia, No. 6 LSU, No. 9 Florida, No. 10 Auburn, No. 15 Texas A&M, No. 20 Texas — plus another six programs (Kentucky, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee) that have ranked in the SP+ top 25 at least once in that span. Only Arkansas and Vanderbilt haven’t done so, and Arkansas was 14th six years ago.
The SEC has regarded itself as the NFL’s Triple A affiliate for a while now, and it’s worked pretty well as a recruiting sales pitch. For the multiyear recruiting averages I compile for SP+ projections, six of the top 15 recruiters were from the SEC, as were 11 of the top 30. Now it’s eight of the top 15, and the other eight programs all have an even stronger “come here to play against the very best” pitch to make.
Bottom line: When I looked back at the past seven years and projected how a proposed 12-team College Football Playoff would have worked, the SEC would have likely gotten at least three teams in the field in five of seven years, and four teams twice. Now it will be expecting four to five per year, and it will frequently hit that mark.
Texas isn’t going to strong-arm the SEC
By the early 1990s, it was clear that the Southwest Conference was in serious trouble. Arkansas had left for greener and far more stable SEC pastures, and with the conference occupying only about 7% of the United States’ TV audience — the SEC and Big Ten were well into double digits — while Texas and Texas A&M were the only programs with national notoriety, there was no draw for television revenue. UT and A&M were very much exploring their options, and the SWC looked for ways to entice them to stay.
One idea was a scheduling agreement with another conference like the Big 8 or WAC (because regular San Diego State-Rice matchups would have saved the day, for sure). Another was changing the distribution of revenue to favor the bigger schools; home teams could keep their own gate receipts, for instance.
Obviously, this didn’t work. In early 1994, the creation of a Big 12 conference, featuring the Big 8’s membership and the top half of the SWC’s, was announced. But Texas had come to really enjoy the “we keep what we make” approach and strong-armed the conference to keep the conference’s playing field uneven for decades, even while bigger and more financially successful conferences such as the SEC and Big Ten (among senior members, at least) distributed media revenue equally.
The dissent that stemmed from that, not to mention the creation of the Longhorn Network within the ESPN family, also helped to prompt four of the conference’s original schools — including the SEC’s Texas A&M and Missouri — to leave the Big 12 in 2010-11.
The SEC is not the SWC or the Big 12. Revenue from media rights and what-not is indeed distributed evenly and will, with almost 100% certainty, continue to be distributed evenly. Not even Alabama can strong-arm the conference to get its way on a given issue.
Again, there’s new leadership at Texas. The new UT isn’t necessarily the old UT. But it’s going to be fascinating to see if and how this new marriage works.
More money doesn’t equal happiness
Matt Brown of the great Extra Points newsletter went on a very useful rant last week on the “Going for Two” podcast that he hosts with Bryan Fischer. He acknowledged that at lower levels of the sport, revenue upgrades can lead to specific changes that improve the athlete or student experience — higher scholarship levels, lower student fees, etc. — but noted that it’s very different at the top level of the sport.
“Did any Big Ten school, and for that matter, literally any Power 5 school over the last decade add a single sport that increased scholarship opportunities for athletes?” he asked. “The answer is no. … What did happen is, a bunch of coaches got a lot more money, a bunch of facilities that don’t really improve recruiting got built to the point where freakin’ Northwestern has a space station and is recruiting almost exactly the same kind of athlete as it was before because it’s Northwestern.”
Texas was already winning the Learfield Cup (and struggling, relatively speaking, at football). OU was already a nearly annual CFP presence and a powerhouse in other sports like softball. They both will have more impressive home schedules to sell to fans, but they were already selling lots of tickets. And in this instance, OU might be voluntarily forfeiting a nearly annual bye in a future 12-team CFP with this move.
One of the biggest things to watch moving forward, actually, is whether any of the proposed elements of a future 12-team playoff now change because of this move — namely, the requirement that the top four seeds (and first-round byes) continue to be reserved for conference champions. It was honestly one of my favorite parts of the proposal, but if the SEC is looking at having one third of the 12-team field or more, it might be able to apply pressure to get that clause removed. If it doesn’t, then while OU will likely continue to land in plenty of CFPs moving forward, it will be doing so as a No. 6 or No. 10 seed, for example, and not a No. 3. Maybe that’s a worthwhile trade; maybe the opportunity to tailgate with LSU fans and occasionally visit the Grove is worth diminishing your odds of winning a national title. But it’s not hard to see some discontent on the horizon, too.
We’re not even THINKING about keeping divisions, right?
When the SEC expanded from 10 to 12 teams in the early 1990s, it took the innovative step of creating divisions and instituting a conference championship game. The six westernmost teams made up the West, the easternmost made up the East, teams were assigned permanent annual rivals from the other division, and off they went,” and off they went. It would soon become the norm.
When the league moved from 12 to 14 teams in 2012, it kept the status quo mostly intact — six-team divisions turned into seven-team divisions. Texas A&M joined the West, and Missouri joined the East (which, thanks to the presence of nearby Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee, made more geographic sense than at first glance).
The limits of divisions quickly became obvious, though. Georgia has yet to visit Texas A&M a decade into the Aggies’ SEC existence, and LSU wasn’t scheduled to visit Missouri until 2023 before last year’s schedule adjustments brought the Tigers to Columbia. When you’re playing an eight-game conference schedule with six division games, a permanent rival and only one other cross-division foe, you barely have a connection with nearly half your conference.
It would be easy enough for the SEC to simply add OU and Texas to the West Division, move a team like Auburn to the East (with Alabama as its new permanent cross-division rival, obviously) and call it a day. But that would exacerbate an already tenuous issue. Auburn and teams like LSU would go from playing every year to playing once or twice a decade.
I’ve long espoused the idea of ditching divisions in favor of a pod structure, and the idea becomes not only relevant but practically necessary in a 16-team conference.
“Pods” could mean a couple of different things: