Arlington, Texas (December 11, 2021) — Ten years ago this night would have been inconceivable. Nobody, especially rabid SEC football fans of the early 2000s, could imagine a day when their conference’s championship would be decided on foreign soil (Texas of all places!) between two schools that weren’t even SEC members. But after a decade of expansion, secession, and reconstruction — what American College Football President Urban Meyer called “our Second Civil War” at a press conference earlier this week — 90,000 fans at Cowboys Stadium will bear witness tonight to the on-field battle between Texas A&M (13-1) and Clemson (11-3) for what SEC fans maintain is still the nation’s most prestigious college football championship.
A&M’s presence in tonight’s championship is especially historic given that it was the proverbial Fort Sumter of the Second Civil War. In 2014 the Aggies, a year into Coach Gus Malzahn’s tenure, jumped from the former Big 12 to the SEC, setting off the decade’s second round of realignment. Unlike the musical chairs of the early 2010s, when the SEC stayed on the sidelines, then-commissioner Mike Silve publicly announced his intentions to form the first 16-member “mega-conference.” By early 2016, Silve had invited ACC members Florida State, Georgia Tech (then coming off a costly NCAA probation), and Clemson to unite with their southern brethren.
In one swoop, Silve not only consolidated the SEC’s regional footprint; he’d dealt a deathblow to ACC football that many observers felt had been a long time coming. “The ACC had always struggled as a basketball-first conference dominated by the Tobacco Road schools,” said Richard Van Falk, director of the sports economics program at Auburn University. “Between the quasi-death penalty the NCAA imposed on North Carolina football in 2012 and the conference’s steadfast refusal to expand over the objections of the basketball coaches, the ACC made its outlying members easy prey for the football-first conferences.”
The ACC, like the Big East, also ended up paying the price when they pushed the NCAA to inflate its basketball bubble to the point of bursting. “Expanding the men’s basketball tournament to 96 teams in 2015 proved disastrous,” Van Falk noted. “The NCAA’s former television partners — the now-defunct CBS-Turner Sports — didn’t want to do it, but they let the eastern basketball conferences bully them into it. The consequences were predictable: Already sagging ratings for men’s basketball cratered in the face of a watered-down product.”
When the NCAA’s “March Madness” revenues collapsed, so did the Association’s hold on college football. Coupled with increasingly aggressive — and many critics claimed arbitrary — enforcement actions that saw four national champions forced to vacate their titles over a seven-year period, the football powers finally made the move to secede. Four years ago, when the NCAA tried to prevent the formation of the current Big Sixteen Conference, those schools joined the SEC in withdrawing their football programs. The Pacific and Southwest Football Conferences left six months later, leading to the formation of American College Football.
The Big Sixteen — the old Big Ten — had followed the SEC’s lead and finished off the ACC by taking its remaining football prize, Virginia Tech, along with Maryland, which paid a hefty fee just to get the life preserver thrown its way. The Big East’s Pittsburgh and longtime conference holdout Notre Dame followed suit, leaving onetime football powers like Miami and West Virginia to languish back in the NCAA.
“Like the ACC, the Big East was never competitive with the SEC or Big 16 in terms of broadcasting contracts,” Auburn’s Van Falk said. “By 2015 the Big East as a whole barely earned one-fourth the revenue of most individual SEC schools. Ultimately, the market wouldn’t support more than three or four large conferences devoted primarily to football.”
It also helped that the National Football League, after years of ignoring the problems with its de facto developmental system, took an active role in changing college football. “The big question was always, ‘Do you pay the players?'” ACF’s Meyer said earlier this week. “What we eventually realized was, it’s not whether you pay the players; it’s whether you maximize their professional educational opportunities. And that’s when the NFL stepped in by creating the Spring League.”
Since 2016, the NFL Spring League has provided ten-week internships for college upperclassmen and recent graduates to play an exhibition schedule in NFL cities under the direction of longtime pro coaches. “The kids get paid a stipend for the internship without altering their ‘amateur’ status within ACF,” Meyer said, adding, “It provided a necessary safety valve to relieve the pressure built up under the NCAA.”
Of course, the biggest change to college football since the ACF’s formation has been the playoff tournament, which emerged after years of press griping and antitrust litigation over the former bowl system. Tonight’s SEC championship is technically just the second round of the 16-team tournament that began with last week’s conference semifinals. “The most radical thing for most fans wasn’t the playoff itself so much as the realignment of traditional conferences like the SEC into four divisions,” A&M’s Malzahn said. “At first it was weird to think of Arkansas, LSU, and [Mississippi] State as our ‘division’ rivals. A lot of fans hated it at first, thinking we were becoming ‘too NFL.’ But now they are far-and-away the three most exciting Saturdays of the regular season.”
This is the first year A&M won the SEC’s Western Division to advance to the ACF’s postseason. Last week’s 27-10 win over Central Division champion Ole Miss setup tonight’s contest against Atlantic Division champion Clemson, who squeaked by Gulf Coast champion Alabama 15-12 in overtime. Tonight’s winner will play Pacific Conference winner Boise State, who defeated Stanford in last night’s championship game.
|The SEC In 2021|
|Western Division||Central Division||Atlantic Division||Gulf Coast Division|
|Arkansas||Vanderbilt||South Carolina||Florida State|
|Miss State||Ole Miss||Georgia Tech||Alabama|
|Semifinal: New Orleans, LA||Semifinal: Atlanta, GA|
|SEC Championship: Cowboy Stadium, Arlington, TX|
Tonight, the SEC Championship Game takes place for the third consecutive year at Cowboy Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Owner Jerry Jones, still reeling from excessive debt levels needed to construct his prized stadium, looked to bring the blockbuster game of the SEC to Cowboy Stadium in an attempt to bring in more revenues. While SEC fans opposed moving the Championship out of the heart of the south, the money Jones offered the SEC was too much to ignore. Atlanta’s aging Georgia Dome was given one of the two SEC semifinal games along with the Superdome in New Orleans.
As odd as it might sound to long-time SEC fans, either Clemson or Texas A&M will get their names etched in the SEC history books tonight as the best that the southeast has to offer. While the entire college football landscape has been in a constant state of change over the last decade, one thing still holds true: the SEC Champion is still the absolute favorite to win the national championship.