The 14-team Southeastern Conference has one more year on the open circuit. The baker’s dozen plus one number of full-time members lasted 12 years, when Texas A&M and Missouri departed the Big 12 for the SEC. Old habits are hard to break and instead of poaching schools that already felt like outsiders in their own conference, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey oversaw the inclusion of the Big 12’s two strongest brands, Texas and Oklahoma, to bring his league to 16 teams starting in 2024.
That’s right, instead of waiting four years like originally agreed upon two summers ago, the Sooners and Longhorns will come to the SEC next year. That’s so quick, but really, who expected them to stay in a league with secondary firepower? These moves are all about football and look at the national championship game for proof if you doubt how much further ahead of the Big 12 the SEC currently is. And that distance is likely only to grow. Nothing says the long-term health of a conference in its biggest sport to have four additions and none come from other Power Five Conferences. Do you know how badly you must want out of a conference to forego $50 million each? With the SEC’s expected yearly payouts to schools expected to raise to close to $70 million with its new television deal, that price tag is oddly chump change to those schools and a necessary expense.
A 16-team FBS conference is uncharted territory, especially with the likely national champion among them. Imagine if they’re able to secure Clemson and Florida State in the coming years. The SEC could separate and start its own playoff. How the conference will be split into divisions, how many conference games each team will play, and what guaranteed matchups we’ll see every year are still unknown. Let’s be real, there’s no interaction of the future SEC where the Iron Bowl and Red River Showdown don’t take place annually. When the addition of Texas and Oklahoma was originally reported, directly in the middle of SEC Media Days, where it went from bullshit rumor dismissed by Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork, to accepted fact later that night, speculation ran rampant as to how the conference would reshuffle. Whether it’s four pods of four, adding Oklahoma and Texas individually to the SEC East and West, or a complete reimagining of the two-eight team divisions, each has its pros and cons to how the future best conference in football, and most sports, is shaped.
Geography be damned in new look conferences
The power shift that comes along with Texas and Oklahoma moving to the SEC, alongside USC and UCLA moving to the Big Ten, gives a clear top two in the Power Five Conference system. Geography is about to be damned in college athletics. The Big 12’s addition of West Virginia signaled that a decade ago, but that’s going to look tame compared to a midweek volleyball trip from Los Angeles to New Brunswick, New Jersey. The closest trip for UCLA and USC, beyond each other, would be to Lincoln, Nebraska. I guess lots of airline miles will be used by someone in those athletic departments.
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Oklahoma and Texas switching conferences one year earlier don’t seem like it should change a bunch in college athletics by having different affiliations for 12 months. That thinking would be wrong. For example, the SEC would claim any championship the duo wins. Jocelyn Alo would’ve been hitting home runs at the Women’s College World Series for an SEC school, not one from the Big 12. That thrilling September Alabama-Texas football game would’ve had added drama because it would’ve been a conference matchup. And while Texas and Oklahoma didn’t come close to winning a conference championship this season, which doesn’t bode well for winning one in a better, deeper league, Big 12 sports without games in Austin and Norman will be odd in a way Columbia, Missouri and College Station, Texas don’t compare. Losing those brands was tough, but not irreplaceable. The departure of Oklahoma and Texas will either be the beginning of the end of the Big 12, or a huge blessing in disguise. We just get to watch the first part of whatever that journey is 365 days sooner. And I’m willing to bet the Sooners and Longhorns won’t be the last to jump ship.