4 Questions To Consider Now That The SEC Is Officially 14 Teams

Now that Missouri will join the SEC starting in 2012, let’s briefly examine some questions and issues going forward.

1. Is this a prelude to 16 members?

Ever since the current realignment wave started in 2010, the conventional wisdom has been that we’re heading for 16-member “super” conferences. Yet no conference has pulled the trigger. The Pac-12 reportedly thought about it last year, but otherwise there’s been no documented effort to expand past 14, as the SEC and ACC have now done.

It’s unlikely the SEC will be the first to go to 16. The league’s presidents remain adamantly opposed to adding members within existing SEC states. And now that Texas A&M and Missouri are on board, there really aren’t any more states to add, especially now that West Virginia has moved to the Big 12.

More importantly, there’s no immediate economic advantage to further expansion. There’s no real significance to the number 16. Adding the states of Texas and Missouri to the conference’s footprint is significant because it provides the SEC with a stronger base to build a future cable network to compete with the Pac-12 and Big 10. Unless you add additional states — and cable households — further expansion is simply dilution.

2. How will the new members affect the SEC’s competitiveness?

Missouri (4-5) and Texas A&M (5-4) are hardly tearing up the Big 12 this year. There’s understandable trepidation about how they’ll fare in the SEC, at least in the short term. But the larger issue is how adding two schools will impact the SEC’s overall competitiveness.

In theory, there won’t be a radical change. The SEC’s schedule will simply be adjusted so that one cross-division game becomes an in-division game. The net effect on most teams should be marginal. Let’s remember, while the SEC may have the grander pedigree, the Big 12 is not the Sun Belt. Missouri and A&M were competitive in that league and should be competitive in the SEC.

The real impact of expansion could manifest itself in the form of increased pressure on coaches to win conference games. As of this writing, there are reports Houston Nutt is on the cusp of getting fired after Ole Miss lost its 12th consecutive SEC game, to Kentucky. In a world where each division now has seven members, it will be harder for schools to separate themselves from the pack. Irritable boosters and reactionary athletic directors may prove quicker to pull the trigger on mediocre coaching staffs.

3. What about expanding the schedule?

Assuming the SEC doesn’t expand to 16 schools, could there be a move to either expand the conference schedule to nine games or push the NCAA to allow 13 regular season games? The former is more likely. South Carolina President Harris Pastides told the campus newspaper the SEC would play nine games in 2012, which would require them to break one of their non-conference contracts for next season. The SEC has not officially confirmed the nine-game schedule as of this writing.

A nine-game schedule effectively restores the cross-division game lost by expansion. This does, however, create an unbalanced schedule every year, as half the members would have one extra conference home game. The other half will thus always be complain about an “unfair” schedule.

As for expanding the entire season to 13, that’s probably a non-starter. The main reason there’s no playoff is that the college presidents don’t want to add more weeks of competition to the current schedule. Smaller schools certainly don’t want the budgetary pressure of another game.

In fact, we could be heading for schedule contraction. ESPN’s Kristi Dosh recently reported that NCAA leaders are considering a 10% reduction in schedules for all sports, including football, to help subsidize increases in scholarship amounts:

When asked if the 10 percent reduction in contests was something presidents would actually support, University of Louisville Athletic Director Tom Jurich seemed to share [Texas A&M athletics director Bill] Byrne’s concern that they would. Neither commented about their own school’s president, but both recognized it as a real possibility. Jurich noted that not everyone believes going to a 12-game schedule has been beneficial, especially when the money spent on guaranteed payments to schools outside of the [Football Bowl Subdivision] is considered.

SEC schools generally allocate one of their four non-conference games to these “guaranteed payment” games against lower-division schools. Cutting that game from the schedule altogether — which could happen in 2012 with a nine-game conference season — may appeal to the presidents and the accounting folks, and the coaches probably wouldn’t put up much of a fight either.

4. This isn’t the end of realignment

The SEC played realignment as well as could be expected. While it seemingly took forever, the SEC’s deliberate process should guarantee Texas A&M and Missouri will begin conference play in 2012. Meanwhile, West Virginia and the Big East are headed to court to settle their divorce. The Big East is also proposing to just about any school that will listen.

The next battle isn’t over realignment so much as the BCS. The current BCS arrangement expires after the 2013–2014 season. The Big East is in danger of losing its automatic qualifier status. The ACC’s expansion was motivated primarily by the desire to preserve its own viability at the expense of the Big East. The Big 10, Pac-12 and SEC appear set going into the next round of BCS negotiations.

The Big 12 remains something of a question mark, although given Texas and Oklahoma’s presence, it’s highly unlikely even a rump Big 12 will be left out of the BCS. Yet realignment will continue to be an issue as long as the Big 12 and Big East are insecure about their BCS standing. Texas clearly prefers a ten-member Big 12 that doesn’t have a championship game, but now that the other four major conferences all have one, that may only increase opposition to keeping the Big 12 around as an automatic qualifier. It may well be that 12 members is the new de facto requirement for automatic qualifier status, especially when you consider the budding alliance of Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference, and even the 14-member MAC.

One possible outcome, which has been reportedly discussed, is an alliance or merger between the Big 12 and Big East, in effect reducing the number of automatic qualifiers from six to five (or possibly giving the MWC/C-USA the sixth berth). But, again, that won’t play itself out until 2014 at the earliest. So we’re looking at two more years of expansion scenarios and discussions, at least from the marginal conferences.

What’s your reaction to the 14 teams in the SEC?