It’s a new day for Oklahoma.
The Sooners locked arms with arch-rival Texas on Thursday and took one giant leap for college football as the newest members of the Southeastern Conference.
SEC presidents and chancellors voted 14-0 Thursday to admit the Sooners and Longhorns.
A timeline for the transition to actually happen is still to be determined (see below), but if OU, Texas, the SEC and ESPN have their way, a new conference logo could be painted on Owen Field in Norman and Campbell-Williams Field in Austin as early as 2022.
"Today's unanimous vote is both a testament to the SEC's longstanding spirit of unity and mutual cooperation, as well as a recognition of the outstanding legacies of academic and athletic excellence established by the Universities of Oklahoma and Texas," SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement. "I greatly appreciate the collective efforts of our Presidents and Chancellors in considering and acting upon each school's membership interest."
OU and Texas on Monday told the Big 12 Conference they would decline the league’s invitation to extend by five years the existing grant-of-rights contract that expires in June 2025. On Tuesday, the schools formally applied for membership in the SEC.
The only real hurdle — opposition by Texas A&M — was cleared on Wednesday when the A&M Board of Regents — despite very public feelings to the contrary from athletic director Ross Bjork at last week’s SEC Media Days — directed Aggies president Katherine Banks to vote yes at Thursday’s proceedings. She did.
The news was first reported last week by the Houston Chronicle.
Oklahoma and Texas leave behind 25 years of membership in the Big 12, where the Sooners have won 14 conference championships and the Longhorns three.
Before that league’s formation (from the merger of the Big Eight and the Southwest Conference), OU spent 75 years aligned with the likes of Oklahoma State, Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State — in the Big Eight from (1958-95), the Big Seven (1948-57), the Big Six (1928-47) and the Missouri Valley (1920-27). From 1915-19, OU was a member of the Southwest Conference, alongside Texas, Texas A&M and Arkansas.
But in 2021, dollar bills and playoff access are more in demand than traditional rivalries and regional alliances.
OU is now aligned with Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Auburn, Tennessee and the rest of the SEC — which owns 11 of the last 15 college football national championships. OU has made four of the seven College Football Playoff brackets (the Sooners are 0-4), but figures to have even better access from the SEC after the CFP expands its field to 12 teams in the coming years.
Not only is the SEC the most successful league on the field, but it’s become a dominant force in the ledger, too.
The SEC signed a 15-year, $2.25 billion deal with ESPN in 2008 and last year agreed to a 10-year, $3 billion deal with ESPN that starts in 2024.
SEC members’ most recent revenue distribution figure was around $46 million each (for fiscal year 2019), and is expected to climb — especially with the addition of OU and Texas — into the range of $60 million a year per school.
OU ($41.97 million) and Texas ($41.27 million) did receive larger revenue disbursements than their Big 12 colleagues due to participation in the College Football Playoff and New Year’s Six bowls, but overall, the Big 12 reported a dip in revenue for the second straight year, while the SEC’s earnings continued to climb.
All that, coupled with a recent economic surge from the Atlantic Coast Conference and punctuated by news in May that Fox Sports and ESPN declined to open early negotiations with the Big 12, gave OU and Texas ample reasons to look elsewhere for conference affiliation.
In adding the Sooners and Longhorns, the SEC stacks even greater power, more stability and longer tradition onto an already gargantuan lineup of some of the game’s blue bloods.
OU has won seven AP national championships (only Notre Dame with eight and Alabama with 11 have more) and seven Heisman Trophies (tied with Notre Dame and Ohio State for the most ever), while Texas has four national titles and two Heismans.
The Sooners lead all of college football with 50 conference championships, have the fifth-best winning percentage all-time, own the most victories since World War II (673) and have scored more points than any other program to go with a record 47-game winning streak in the 1950s.
It’s widely presumed that Oklahoma won’t be able to dominate the SEC like the Sooners have the Big 12. OU has won more than half of the league’s championships in football, and they’re currently on a six-year streak of winning the conference title.
But being in the conference that produces the most NFL Draft picks every year — by far — opens up certain recruiting avenues (particularly on defense) to which the Sooners haven’t had consistent access for the better part of the last 15 years.
And it’s those elite recruits that win national championships, something Oklahoma hasn’t done now in 20 years.
While OU recruiting has picked up under Lincoln Riley (from the 12-19 range in the 247 Sports team rankings to the 6-9 range), the Sooners are still too often on the outside looking at the best of the best.
Over the last 10 years, per 247 Sports, Alabama has landed four No. 1-ranked classes, plus one that ranked No. 2, and the Crimson Tide have won five national titles.
A great season usually produces great recruits a year later, but there’s been a correlation recently to top-five classes and title runs happening in the same season.
LSU landed the No. 5 class in the country the year it won the championship in 2019. Ohio State’s 2014 class was ranked No. 3. Over the last decade, only Clemson (No. 7 and No. 11) and Florida State (No. 11) won national championships while finishing outside the top five in team recruiting rankings in the same year.
Of course, recruiting success doesn’t guarantee wins on the field. Texas has landed a top-five class four times in the last 10 years (UT hit the top 10 seven times) but has zero conference championships and the fifth-best aggregate record in the Big 12 during that time.
While 2022 may be the dream scenario for OU and Texas to begin play in the SEC, it could drag out — potentially for the duration, into 2025.
On Wednesday, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said he intends to fight as long as he can after sending a cease and desist letter to ESPN, accusing the network of trying to destabilize his conference by incentivizing other leagues to snatch up remaining members — “tortious interference,” he claimed.
Bowlsby also accused ESPN as well as OU and Texas of conspiring for months against the Big 12’s interests (and against Big 12 bylaws) while both schools attended regular league meetings that included proprietary information.
Meanwhile, ESPN responded to Bowlsby's accusation Thursday with a statement to the press, saying Bowlsby's accusations are "entirely without merit" and that the network "has engaged in no wrongful conduct."
It’s been widely reported that OU and Texas could be faced with stiff buyout penalties — upwards of $80 million each — to leave early. And OU and Texas both said they intend to fulfill the terms of the current agreement. However, the Austin American-Statesman reported this week that that buyout could come from what ESPN still owes Texas for its 15-year contract with the school for the Longhorn Network — in the neighborhood of $160 million.
That could pave the way for Oklahoma and Texas membership in the Southeastern Conference starting in 2022, forming an alliance that figures to shake up other conferences around the country and would have profound ramifications ofor decades to come.
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