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Conference Realignment: The Aggie Perspective

We know well what the most vocal, often hysterical portion of the Aggie fan base thinks -- SECede at all costs! -- but what about Rational Ag?  You know the ones: your colleagues and neighbors who don't live on TexAgs and who you have a hard time figuring out just how exactly they went through Fish Camp with a straight face.  They're, like, normal people.

The truth is, of course, that such Aggies probably outnumber the loons, and though their online presence is minimal, I tracked one down to talk about this whole SEC thing.  BONizens, meet James Garnder, an Aggie alum now working on his MBA at Notre Dame.  You can find him on Twitter @JimmyGards.

PB:  I want to explore this whole thing with you in some detail, Jimmy, but let's walk through it in steps, and start at the top: Do you think Texas A&M should be seeking to join the SEC right now?

James Gardner:  Over the past year, I was one of the few Ags that was reluctant about the idea of moving to the SEC. My reluctance was rooted primarily in optimism for the Big 12. For all its flaws, I had grown to love the league and I felt they were in a great bargaining position for their next set of TV deals a few years down the road.

Clearly Texas has a revolutionary vision for where they want to be as a program and much of it is pretty admirable. However, I'm of the belief that conferences are partnerships and while Texas' revenue-maximization goals appeal to the capitalist in me, some of their actions don't seem to align with the best interests of the league and its vitality.

For many reasons, the Big 12 can never have the identity and unity of the SEC and Big 10. We've seen over the past couple years that every school is essentially just looking out for themselves. That typed, the best option for Texas A&M right now is to join the SEC.

PB:  Okay, so let's unpack that a little bit. A year ago, you were optimistic about the Big 12 being a fruitful partnership. Now, a year later, you're not. What, exactly, changed?

James Gardner:  Nothing really changed. A&M's brass has even conceded that they wish this had been addressed last year. I think they had their own issues to sort out and now that they're on the same page, they're ready to move. I know this won't be popular with your readership, but the scope of the Longhorn Network and relationship with ESPN comes off a bit brazen and arrogant. UT seems content to push the envelope as they build their extremely lucrative brand. Personally, I don't fault Texas for looking out for Texas. We're just looking after ourselves. I imagine the brass now wishes they were playing their hand closer to the vest because as soon as the mob of rabid fans got wind of SEC talk, the train was loading up. From a simple PR standpoint, it would be tough for the administration to shut this down.

PB:  That doesn't make much sense to me, but let's accept that the only reason A&M went along with things a year ago was that they needed a year to, I don't know, something. But let's get at the real issue here, which is "looking after ourselves." Here, I'm mystified. Let me tell you how this looks from where I'm sitting, and get your reaction.

It seems to me that A&M is sitting pretty in the current Big 12 partnership, however flawed and tenuous it may be. The Aggies are making money and are guaranteed to continue making money. Good money -- at least as much as they're going to get at the SEC. Not only that, but they're sitting as the No. 2 school in the most talent-rich state for college football. And best of all, their path to real, meaningful success is crystal clear. Beat Texas, beat OU, beat a mediocre conference slate, play for the national title.

Contrast that with the move to the SEC. Not only do the Aggies enter a conference where they are immediately a middle-of-the-pack program at best, but they stand to lose ground as the SEC foxes are invited into the Aggies recruiting henhouse. Arkansas hasn't won a conference title since joining the SEC, and it would be a major upset if the Aggies did any time soon, either. All the upside and benefit is with the SEC. The Aggies get, what? Stability? Fine, but they aren't Kansas -- A&M is too valuable a commodity to be left without a chair when the next realignment round happens.

Why, then, make this move now? Why now, when you have a chance to keep building up the strength of your program in a weaker, temporarily beneficial Big 12? You make money, you win games, you bolster your recruiting profile, you don't compete with the SEC. And you don't sacrifice your leverage later in the realignment game. What the hell are y'all thinking? How is this in your best interests? I honestly don't get it. All it does is divorce you from Texas. That doesn't help you, and doesn't hurt us.

James Gardner: All very valid points. (I love lawyers). These are the reasons I'm more hesitant than most on the move. Financially, we'll be fine however this unfolds.

I do think there is real concern over the long term ramifications of the Longhorn Network. This is mostly uncharted waters in the sport. I always enjoy watching ESPN act as an entertainment conglomerate while maintaining journalistic credibility. Their role in all of this will be interesting.

As for the competition, it is certainly a jump, but in many years, the Big 12 South has been the best division in football. I think we'll adapt. We've had our Fran years. We went through a very dark decade. Alabama, Auburn, and LSU have all had lean times in recent history. I believe we'll embrace the challenge and adapt. We have all the resources and capabilities to compete. Many are excited about these schools coming into Kyle Field every other year instead of Baylor, Iowa State, etc.

The recruiting dynamic is definitely something to be considered. One could argue that A&M could recruit better in Texas by selling the opportunity to play in the best league in the country. LSU would seem to be the biggest benefactor if A&M moved to the SEC - particularly in Houston. Arkansas already has their Texas inroads. The SEC recruiting landscape plays by a different set of rules. How will this impact Texas high school football? What does A&M have to change when recruiting?

The timing of when this all leaked is definitely strange. They'd never admit this, but I think it has Belmont on their heels a bit. You had to think that with UT bullying their way around a weakened conference that programs with bargaining chips would use them. The SEC is our bargaining chip. More than anything, I'd hate to see the Thanksgiving game go.

PB:  I appreciate your points, although it doesn't sound even you're totally sold on them. The really interesting point you raise, however, is the last one: a bluff to add leverage with Texas. I personally find the game theory aspect of realignment the most interesting thing about it all, and if A&M's recent harrumphing is a bluff as opposed to an emotional overreaction, well, that's a good bit more interesting (and admirable).

So let's start to wind this down with a different question: what do you think will happen? Is A&M maneuvering to strengthen its present position? Or is A&M out the door the first chance it gets? If the former, I may have to reconsider my disdain for the move. If the latter, well... heaven help y'all.

James Gardner: I'm not totally sold on the move. It isn't a "slam dunk" or as cut-and-dry as the loudest Aggies would have you believe. If anything, I'm glad the process has slowed from last weekend's torrid pace. These are decisions that impact decades and should definitely not be done emotionally.

I think A&M will be in the SEC in the next couple years. When your university president, regents, and Rick Perry let their intentions show, I don't see how it gets turned around. I would love a scenario where they bluffed a bit just to keep the powers at UT and ESPN guessing. What is UT's move if we leave? As you and I both have Notre Dame ties, I think independence has to be on the table.

I'm ready for games. Until then, I expect more Pat Forde columns toeing the LHN line.

PB:  The Aggies are 1-6 in their last 7 bowl games against the SEC, and 0-4 in the previous two years, losing to Arkansas (twice), LSU, and Georgia by an average score of 39-20. (Hat Tip: SAS)  A move to the SEC would require an awful lot of adapting.

In any event, as a bluff to keep things interesting until the next round of realignment begins, the ruckus of the last few weeks is defensible, possibly even wise. It's hard to tell what's really going on, given how utterly insane the most vocal members of Aggieland are. It was good to chat with a thoughtful Aggie on the topic.

As for Texas, the timing of realignment's next act probably has a big influence on how we play our hand. I think you're right: independence is definitely an option, but I don't think we're locked into that as the only way this can play out for us. I think Texas would prefer to stay paired with Oklahoma for the time being (perhaps ideally in the Super Pac 16), and the one scenario that's a little bit frightening for Texas is A&M and OU bolting for the SEC together on a shortened timetable. That forces us to make a decision before I think we'd ideally like to do so. 

Thanks again, and we'll see y'all in November.

James Gardner: Texas is 0-5 in their last five Big 12 games. Hopefully you can adapt back to the conference. Watch out for the Ames roadie.

I enjoyed the chat. Your legal chops serve you well in this format. Thanks for having me.