When I first started writing about conference realignment over a decade ago, it was always clear to me which school was the biggest prize for every conference: the University of Texas. Whatever metric is used for conference realignment value, Texas has a perfect score in all of them – national historic football brand, rabid fan base, massive home state delivering multiple key TV markets, elite academics and a top recruiting area for football and virtually every other sport. Adding Texas was the original dream for Big Ten expansion and the Longhorns were the centerpiece of the Pac-16 proposal. The Texas power was so overwhelming that they effectively ran the Big 12 as their own conference.
While it has long been assumed that Oklahoma would take an invite from the SEC under the right circumstances, the conference where it just means more has been a relative underdog when it comes to courting Texas. Sure, the pure football fan base out of Austin would love a schedule full of SEC opponents, but the academic and administrative sides at UT have always viewed the SEC was a wary eye. Add on top of the fact that Texas A&M moved to the SEC on its own back in 2011 and there was an undercurrent that the Longhorns couldn’t ever be perceived to be following the Aggies on principle.
At the same time, much of the value of the Big 12 to both Texas and Oklahoma was political peace. Fellow in-state institutions such as Texas Tech and Oklahoma State could continue be protected as a part of a Power 5 conference with the bargain being that UT and OU would be calling the shots for the league. In fact, it had been becoming difficult to see how Texas and/or Oklahoma could proactively leave the Big 12 without any of their “little brothers” with such a huge divide between the Power 5 and Group of 5 conferences, especially when they turned down the Pac-16 proposal that would have largely incorporated them all.
As a result, the Houston Chronicle breaking the story today that Texas and Oklahoma have reached out to the SEC is an earthquake followed up by a tsunami for conference realignment purposes. To quote Dr. Strange, “We’re in the endgame now.” The past two decades of conference realignment (starting with the ACC’s original raid of the old Big East football conference by expanding with Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College) have been leading up to this moment.
The COVID-19 pandemic also crystallized something very clearly for schools both large and small across the country: no one can afford to leave material amounts of money on the table any longer. That can’t be emphasized enough. It’s not an accident that a 12-team college football playoff is coming down the pike sooner rather than later and now, several months after the SEC has signed a Game of the Week deal with ESPN worth around $300 million per year (and note that this is on top of their existing ESPN deal and the SEC Network), it appears that all of the overarching concerns and obstacles that UT and OU may have had (whether internal or external) might be melting away.
Another important point is that SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey has become the unambiguous alpha dog of college sports. While the SEC was always well-managed and clearly had the best product on the field for many years, it was really former Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany that was the main visionary of college sports during his tenure and who changed how leagues look at media rights (particularly the invention of the conference network) and conference realignment (where growth outside of the existing footprint became the focus). Ever since Delany retired at the end of 2019, Sankey has really positioned the SEC to be as bold off-the-field as it has been on-the-field. Within the past month, he has spearheaded the development of the new college football playoff system, completely called out the NCAA and put out a thinly veiled threat that the Power 5 could leave on their own… and now appears to be on the precipice of a once-in-a-generation SEC expansion.
It’s hard to say where this leaves competitor leagues such as the Big Ten. I can’t imagine that Texas and Oklahoma searching for a new home alone without their little brothers would have just been ceded to the SEC under Jim Delany’s watch. This isn’t a critique of current Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren, but rather that Sankey’s dominance compared to the other P5 leaders right now is unchecked. If UT and OU end up in the SEC, I could see the Big Ten having a lot of interest in Kansas. Note that KU has had the largest third tier rights TV deal in the Big 12 outside of UT’s Longhorn Network (even higher than OU), which shows the particularly unique value of the Jayhawk basketball program. There are few basketball programs that move the P5 conference realignment needle today, but KU is one of them as a true blue blood. Basketball content is quite relevant to the Big Ten Network in particular. Still, it’s difficult to find another great fit for the B1G outside of a much more difficult raid of the ACC (e.g. Georgia Tech, Virginia) or (gasp!) Pac-12 (e.g. Colorado).
Now, there have already been rumblings that Texas A&M will work try to block this SEC expansion. While I could see the leadership of Texas A&M voting against adding Texas and Oklahoma in order to superficially placate their alums, it’s completely insane for me to think that any other SEC member would oppose those additions regardless of any past history (such as Missouri’s experience with Texas in the Big 12). Any conference that has the ability to add two of the biggest brands in college sports in one fell swoop will hammer this through, particularly with a leader like Sankey.
The bottom line is that Texas and Oklahoma going to the SEC would be the greatest heist in conference realignment history. We’re in the endgame now.