Realignment Chronicles: Texas To The SEC? Absolutely!

 

What?!?

So having been given this forum to write about realignment and how it would affect Texas, I decided that I would do my best to avoid stories consisting of pure speculation or advocacy and instead focus on trying to learn more about specific issues which will influence UT's decision.

But I've seen that there's a piece of the pie missing.  If and when realignment occurs in a way that the Big XII will be negatively impacted (and I think that is inevitable), Texas has five choices: (1) stay in a patched-together Big XII, (2) go independent, (3) move to the Big 10, (4) move to the Pac 10, or (5) move to the SEC.

I've seen arguments made about why moves to the Big 10 and the Pac 10 would be best for UT's athletic programs and for the university as a whole.  I've also seen plenty of arguments why staying in a retooled Big XII would best.

I have yet to see, by contrast, a substantive argument why a move to the SEC would be the best for Texas.  Many of us here on BON, me more than most, have dismissed the possibility of a move to the SEC on purely academic grounds without further exploration.  Meanwhile, those who have on occasion poppoed up to advocate a move to the SEC have tended to go no deeper in their advocacy than commenting on the improved quality of the tailgating scene.

Enough national sports writers have suggested that the SEC could be an option that I want to explore why such a move could be good for the school.  Unfortunately, these writers never get beyond a one-sentence, football-oriented opinion as to why it might work.

So given this absence of serious analysis, I thought I'd give it a shot myself and try to construct the best argument possible for why Texas should consider the SEC amongst its option.

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(0) Unbelievable football dominance.  I am listing this as factor #0 because I think it is important to emphasize that "TEXAS + SEC = FOOTBALL POWER 4EVER" is not a reason to make the move.

Remember, everything is cyclical.  Of course the SEC has been the top football conference over the past several years, and of course Texas has been one of the top two or three programs in the nation over that time period.

But who would have guessed, writing 10 years ago today, that the decade which was to follow would see Boise State win more BCS bowl games than Florida State, Tennessee, UCLA, Wisconsin, Michigan, Notre Dame, Alabama and Nebraska combined.

Yes, it's a simplistic argument, but it illustrates quite well that one should not look at the specific balance of power in football today as a reason to choose a conference affiliation which should last for decades.  It should be as important a factor as the supposedly enhanced tailgating of the SEC.

Keep in mind that this string of SEC titles has included a title in a year in which a two-loss team captured the title, a year in which the Big XII tiebreaker procedure spit out the weaker opponent for the SEC champion, and a year in which the SEC champion's opponent lost its most important player on the fifth offensive snap.

Keep in mind that this period has coincided with a period in which some traditional powers, like Florida State and Michigan, haven't been firing at all cylinders.

Keep in mind that no team (or teams) has broken out of the expanded ACC yet to compete on an annual basis for national titles.  It's puzzling as to why it hasn't happened yet, but rest assured that it will happen.

And keep in mind that whatever conference Texas joins will be the best football conference in the country on Day One.  Of course, as of today, the gap on day one between the SEC+Texas and the other conferences would be greater than the gap between, say Texas+Big 10 and the other conferences, but, again, everything is cyclical.

So moving on to the arguments that do matter...

(1) The academic gap isn't as great as SEC detractors claim.  Let's address the elephant in the room head-on.  Yes, the SEC, from top to bottom, would not be as strong academically as the Big 10 or the  Pac 10, even with the addition of Texas (and, presumably, Texas A&M as well).

But you know what?  The Big XII today, with Texas and Texas A&M, is not at the same level academically as those two conferences.  And I've never seen anyone, even those of us who have dismissed the SEC on purely academic grounds, argue that Texas is too good academically for the Big XII.

The gap narrows if one concentrates on the schools at the academic top of each conference.  This is important because, if we moved to the Big 10, we'd be comparing ourselves to Michigan, not Michigan State.  And in the SEC, we'd be comparing ourselves to Vandy and Georgia and Florida, not Mississippi State and Kentucky.

Using the admittedly flawed US News rankings as a very rough guideline for comparison of the academic reputations of the top tier schools of the Big 10, Pac 10 and an SEC with Texas and Texas A&M, all three conferences would have one private school (Northwestern/Stanford/Vanderbilt) ranked in the Top 20 and four or five additional schools ranked between 21 and 61 (using 61 as that is the ranking at which the SEC would pick up its fifth school [A&M]).

As of today, even with Texas and A&M, no other Big XII school cracks the Top 75, and the fifth Big XII school isn't ranked until Iowa State at 88.  (Author's note: would you have guessed that the three highest ranked Big XII schools after Texas and A&M would have been Colorado, Baylor and Iowa State?  Me neither.)  So it's arguable that a move to any of the three realistic conferences would be an academic upgrade for Texas.

Moving beyond the US News rankings and looking at research dollars (link for 2006 dollars here -- note that the link opens an .xls file), there is a greater discrepancy between the Big 10/Pac 10 and the SEC with the Texas schools.  Ignoring some of the apples/oranges problems with the data (a lot of the Big 10 schools report as "all campuses," while UT-Austin, which lacks a medical school, is broken off independently from other UT campus), the SEC would still land four schools in the Top 35 in terms of overall research dollars.  (And, again, the Big XII of today lags far behind what the SEC with Texas and A&M would be in this metric as well.)

The SEC also has started to take steps to booster the overall academic profiles of its member schools.  In 2006, the conference created the Southeastern Conference Academic Consortium, which could be considered similar in nature to the Big 10's CIC.

In sum, is the SEC as strong as the Big 10 or the Pac 10, even if just focusing on the top academic tier of schools? No, of course not.  But is the gap so wide or so insurmountable that the academics of the SEC should be an automatic disqualifier if all of the other pieces fit, given UT's tolerance of the similarly weaker academics of the Big XII?  No.

(2) Demographics is Destiny.  Southern and western states have been growing for decades at the expense of states in the Midwest and North, and that trend shows no sign of letting up in the near future.

Estimates of how U.S. congressional seats will shift after reapportionment is completed after the results of the 2010 Census bear this out.  The states of the present-day SEC and Pac 10 will each net two additional seats, while the states of the present-day Big 10 will lose a whopping seven seats.  In fact, there are only four seats being lost in the entire rest of the U.S. outside present-day Big 10 territory, and two of those four seats are in states contiguous to the Big 10 into which the conference is rumored to be considering expansion as well (New York and New Jersey).

(Oh, and Texas will gain four.  No other state will gain more than one.  And the remaining states of the present-day Big XII remain the same.)

No wonder the Big 10 has been rumored to be looking to the south more than originally anticipated.  Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney was recently quoted as saying:  "In the last 20 or 30 years, there's been a clear shift in movement to the Sun Belt. The rates of growth in the Sun Belt are four times the rates in the East or the Midwest.  You do want to look forward to 2020 and 2030 and see what that impact would be on our schools."

So why move north to join a bunch of dying midwestern states?  Move to where the growth will be for the lifetimes of most of us reading this today.

(On the flip side, one of the participants on Frank's blog commented, seemingly seriously and without irony, that global warming will soon render Texas, the Southwest and Florida uninhabitable, so the Big 10 shouldn't sweat these demographic arguments too much.  For what it's worth.)

(3) Baseball is a Grand Slam.  Baseball matters to Texas, and it matters in a way the Midwest's longer winters (well, at last until global warming hits!) dictate it never will to the Big 10, a conference which last crown an NCAA champion during the first year of the Johnson Administration.  And though I argued against using recent history as a predictor of future football dominance, practically any historical measure of time would reveal that a Texas move to the SEC, particularly if accompanied by A&M and OU, would create a collegiate baseball monster no other conference could dare match for the foreseeable future.

In 2009, eleven of the presumed schools of the expanded SEC qualified for the NCAA tournament, while a mere three qualified from each of the Big 10 and Pac 10.

And as of this writing, eight of the presumed schools of the expanded SEC are in Baseball America's Top 25, while the Pac 10 has four and the Big 10 has, um, well, none.

Even a Big 10 advocate like myself has never had an adequate answer, or even an inadequate answer, to the potential devastating effect a move to the Big 10 would be for our baseball program.

(4) Near-Perfect, Top-To-Bottom Athletic Compatibility.  Texas competes in 18 varsity sports, close to the minimum in which it can compete and retain Division I status.  Texas fields teams in football, basketball (M & W), baseball, softball, volleyball (W), track and field (M & W), swimming and diving (M & W), tennis (M & W), golf (M & W), cross country (M & W), soccer (W) and rowing (W).

The SEC, much like the Big XII is today, is an excellent fit for a school exhibiting this sort of minimalist approach to fielding varsity teams.  The SEC offers championships in 18 sports, offering a championship in only one sport (women's gymnastics) in which Texas does not compete, and failing to offer a championship in only one sport (women's rowing) in which Texas does compete.

Schools of the Big 10 and Pac 10, by contrast, often have broader athletic ambitions, and this is reflected by the number of conference championships member schools compete for in sports for which Texas does not field teams.  These include sports like men's soccer, men's volleyball, wrestling and field hockey.  Additionally members schools field nationally competitive varsity squads in a number of sports, including ice hockey, lacrosse and water polo, for which the NCAA offers championships but their conferences do not.

The SEC, in sum, offers Texas the least amount of time and resources wasted at the conference level in sports in which Texas does not compete.

(5) Better Geography. Joining the SEC makes much more geographic sense than joining either the Big 10 and Pac 10.

The average school of the present-day SEC is 836 miles away from Austin, in contrast to an average of 1,209 miles for the Big 10 and a staggering 1,686 miles (and two time zones) for the Pac 10.  When looking at these numbers, keep in mind that Texas would be more likely to bring along schools like OU and Texas Tech to the SEC than to the other conferences, so that discrepancy would only widen after realignment does all it's going to do.

It should go without saying that those extra miles and time away from Austin add up rather quickly for student athletes.  And while advocates of a move to the Big 10 or Pac 10 might point out that travel to urban areas like Columbus and Los Angeles would be faster and cheaper that trips to many of the smaller college towns of the SEC despite the greater distance, the logistics of traveling to and from cities like State College, Pullman and Corvalis dwarf any similar issues Texas would face in the SEC.

Beyond the measurable quantifiables of time and distance, though, lies the psychological importance of the greater geographic cohesiveness the SEC would offer.  Though I personally have discounted the importance of geography, I know that a number of BON members have expressed various concerns about being so distant from most, if not all, of the other schools of the conference Texas is in.  Being in the SEC, and being in a state bordered by two, if not three (if OU joined as well) other SEC states, would alleviate many of these concerns about geographic isolation.

(6) Simpler Politics.  Sometimes the battle best fought is the battle not waged.

As discussed in a previous edition of the Realignment Chronicles, it appears probable, though by no means definite, that Texas alone, or Texas and Texas A&M together, could leave Texas Tech behind even if Tech and its considerable political resources waged a battle in the Texas Legislature to prevent the schools from leaving for greener pastures.

But would it be wise in the long term to wage such a battle and to potentially alienate those in the Legislature before whom Texas will have multiple issues year in and year out?  If there is a solution which would allow Texas (and A&M) to move to greener pastures without having to leave Tech behind, then why wouldn't that option be the most politically optimal to pursue?

No matter how much the Big 10 or the Pac 10 might want Texas, having to swallow Tech as well would be an absolute deal-breaker.  But would it be for the SEC?  I think not. Check out the words of SEC Commissioner Mike Silve in an interview with a DFW radio show last week:

I can’t speak for anyone else, but we’re in the state of Texas neighborhood, and we watch and enjoy the success that Texas, and [Texas] A&M and [Texas] Tech have all experienced and respect it greatly. And we understand, in many ways, the goals and aspirations of the schools in Texas are the same as the goals and aspirations of the people in the SEC.

What's particularly interesting is that, according to the transcript, Tech wasn't mentioned in the question at all.  A rather gratuitous, and shrewd, mentioning of Tech by Silve, signaling that Tech would probably be acceptable to the SEC.

So if Tech would be welcome in the SEC, why complicate things unnecessarily by moving elsewhere?

(7) The SEC Offers An Easier Schedule.  WHAT?!?!?

OK, not necessarily easier, but counterintuitively and perhaps uniquely for Texas, the projected football schedule the Longhorns would face as a member of the SEC wouldn't be much more difficult than projected scheduling being in the Big 10 or the Pac 10.

(I know discussing current strengths of football programs runs counter to what I discussed in factor #0 above, but I do want to alleviate concerns that, short-term, the SEC would be too much of a buzzsaw for Texas or any other school.)

Consider these factors:

  • It's quite conceivable that A&M and OU would join us in a move to the SEC.  There's no chance in hell OU would be invited to join the Big 10 and Pac 10, and it's questionable whether A&M would want to move to either of those conferences, even if invited.
  • Texas would seek to keep OU and A&M on the schedule if no longer in the same conference.
  • If a Big XII quartet joined the SEC, the most logical divisional alignment would see the two Alabama schools move east.

So let's look at a couple of sample schedules for the 2012 Longhorns.  First, one for Texas as a member of the Big 10:

Week Opponent (Conference Games in BOLD)
Week 1 NORTH TEXAS
Week 2 @ Rice
Week 3 PENN STATE
Week 4 @ Iowa
Week 5 @ Nebraska
Week 6 Oklahoma (in Dallas)
Week 7 MINNESOTA
Week 8 @ Notre Dame
Week 9 MISSOURI
Week 10 ILLINOIS
Week 11 @ Wisconsin
Week 12 TEXAS A&M
CCG Ohio State (in Indianapolis)

 

Compare that schedule with a Longhorn schedule in the SEC:

Week Opponent (Conference Games in BOLD)
Week 1 NORTH TEXAS
Week 2 @ Rice
Week 3 ARKANSAS
Week 4 @ Ole Miss
Week 5 WYOMING
Week 6 Oklahoma (in Dallas)
Week 7 @ Georgia
Week 8 MISSISSIPPI STATE
Week 9 LSU
Week 10 FLORIDA ATLANTIC
Week 11 @ Texas Tech
Week 12 TEXAS A&M
CCG Alabama (in Atlanta)

 

Which schedule is tougher, top to bottom?  It's debatable.  But that's the point: a move to the SEC for Texas doesn't necessarily lead to the toughest possible schedule.  So don't be afraid.

(8) Financial Windfall.  We've debated what the better option financially would be for Texas: moving to the Big 10 and reaping the sure thing of the profitability of the Big Ten Network (BTN), or finding a conference alignment through which Texas could attempt to achieve the theoretical greater profitability of the proposed Longhorn Sports Network (LSN).

In our continuous cavalier dismissals of the possibility of Texas moving to the SEC, we have ignored the fact that the SEC would offer the best of both worlds: an opportunity to reap the benefits of an insane conference television contract (the conference is entering the second year of 15-year deals with ESPN and CBS worth, combined, more than $3 billion) while also being permitted to launch the LSN as well (an option which, presumably, would not be available to the Longhorns in the Big 10 due to the BTN).

SEC Commissioner Silve, from the same interview cited above:

The SEC spent a couple of years evaluating whether to do a network, like the Big 10 network, the Mountain network or the NFL network. And we weighed that against the more traditional sale of rights that we ultimately decided to do. And one of the most compelling reasons for us to move to the more traditional method is we’ve had a long standing culture where we permitted our institutions to have their own local packages, which generates, for many of our institutions, substantial revenue.

(Emphasis mine.)

Looking at the potential revenue stream a move to the SEC would provide, it would come close to committing financial malpractice not to move to the SEC if the potential moves were analyzed solely from a financial perspective.

So, persuaded yet?  Ready to go discuss the relative merits of beef versus pork BBQ at tailgates for the next 50 years?  I'm looking forward to seeing what holes you can punch in my arguments, because the last thing I'll want to wake up to one day in the future is a headline which reads "UT Announces Move to SEC; BON Blogger Proves Persuasive".

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