SEC won't expand any time soon, but won't stay at 14 forever
The college football landscape in the last decade resembled the main plot of “San Andreas,” a corny new film starring Dwayne Johnson and a pair of blessed actresses who wade through family issues in the midst of some of the largest earthquakes ever recorded.
In case you haven’t lived in California before, major earthquakes almost always are followed by aftershocks. That’s held true in college football, where all the chaos of realignment killed off the Big East and the WAC, eroded the Big 12 and made the ACC, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12 even more powerful.
Out of those seismograph-jostling tremors came a College Football Playoff, several new conference TV networks and some long-awaited peace.
But if we’ve learned anything thus far in the 21st century, it’s that life changes in a hurry sometimes.
The SEC formed in 1932 with 13 members, which eventually trickled to 10 by the time Tulane departed in 1966. And there it stayed until 1990, when the conference, in a genius move, took advantage of a little-known bylaw allowing for divisions and a championship game. That necessitated 12 member schools, so the SEC added Arkansas and South Carolina.
Then the league made inroads into Texas and the Midwest in ’12, expanding with Texas A&M and Missouri prior to the launch of the already-lucrative SEC Network.
One of the reasons that Florida State didn’t join the conference in ’90 was because it didn’t want to split league revenue 12 ways; despite a record payout of more than $31 million per school in ’15, surely the member institutions don’t want to give away another few slices of the pie at this stage.
Not with the SEC Network and other revenue sources trending toward even more lucrative paydays in the coming years. Not when the conference, on the field and financially, should remain positioned at the top of college football for years to come.
But there are a few things that could lead to future tectonic movement among the so-called power conferences.
The initial underground shift may have already taken place. The Big 12, left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff, is taking a hard look at its policies. Both TCU and Baylor got strong consideration for inclusion, but Ohio State pushed the conference out of the playoff in large part due to a dominating performance in the Big Ten championship game.
The Big 12 bylaws declared co-champions in case of a tie. (The conference, of course, includes just 10 members; thus, it isn’t eligible for a conference championship game.) Some felt like the lack of a clear-cut champion impacted the decision of the CFP committee to exclude TCU and Baylor. At the least, it made the conference members reconsider whether co-champions in case of a tie was the ideal way to move forward.
Meanwhile, the Longhorn Network isn’t doing nearly as well as the larger imprint of the other conferences’ new TV stations. And it’s not benefitting the entire Big 12.
The upshot: there’s a lot of discussion about the Big 12 expanding to make its name anatomically correct. Adding two members, at least in football, would restore a conference championship game and perhaps help ease a re-organization leading to the launch of a Big 12 Network.
If the Big 12 does add some football teams — say, BYU and Boise State — it could be an isolated quake that doesn’t set off tremors anywhere else in the country. Or it could add instability to the entire system, eventually leading to another round of expansions as the other conferences, including the SEC, look to maintain the financial edge the Big 12 would be trying to negate.
Another issue to monitor is NCAA autonomy. The power conferences got just that last year, and there are growing pains with how to govern issues such as athlete compensation (“cost of attendance”). As the gap between the haves and have nots closely resembles the true economy — that is to say, it should continue to grow at an astounding rate — the difference between the SEC and, say, the Sun Belt may be much greater than the difference between, say, FCS and Division II football.
If the financial schism results in the power conferences deciding to break away in even more tangible ways in terms of rules, monetary rewards and other items, expect some members of the Group of 5 to attempt to heave themselves aboard the ship before it leaves port.
Perhaps schools like Houston, East Carolina or UCF would aim to join the SEC, hoping to offer some sort of benefit in return — greater footprints in Texas and Florida, maybe.
The SEC remained dormant in terms of expansion 1932 until 1990, and since has added two pairs of teams in a 12-year window. It’s naive to think the conference definitely won’t add another pair of teams between now and 2024.
There’s nothing on the horizon now, and that shouldn’t change at least for several years. But the ground can flip from calm to full-fledged earthquake in a jiffy.