Whether or not Texas A&M ultimately joins the SEC, the scenario I once scoffed at is suddenly becoming very real. It could perhaps be finalized as soon as Monday, when A&M regents will be meeting. Though if we learned anything from last summer's realignment madness, it's that this stuff rarely plays out exactly as first reported.
All those premature "done deals" played a part in my cautious skepticism when the latest rumors heated up, but more so, something about the A&M story has always seemed a little bit ... off. It's not that A&M's budding crush on the SEC doesn't make sense. It most certainly does. For one thing, it never really wore off after last summer, when the league was set to invite the Aggies and Oklahoma if the Big 12 imploded. For another, the appeal of escaping big brother Texas' shadow seemed to intensify tenfold when ESPN's attempts to televise high-school games and Big 12 contests on The Longhorn Network went public this summer.
The part that has never jibed with reality is the assumption that the SEC is equally fixated on A&M despite the fact that no one of import in the SEC has said a word to that effect publicly. It also doesn't fit with Mike Slive's repeated assertions last year that the league would only entertain expansion in the event of a major "paradigm shift" on the conference landscape. Even if that was a smokescreen, adding A&M by itself doesn't seem like a Slive move. Sure, all those Texas television sets are appealing. They'd certainly ensure renegotiated television contracts (currently worth $205 million a year), which would push the league back ahead of the Pac-12's recent $250-million-a-year deals. But it's not like the SEC is hurting for money, and it's not like the Pac-12's cash influx represents some tangible threat to the SEC's current dominance.
It hardly seems worth diluting the best on-field product in college football today for a few extra millions, which is exactly what the SEC would be doing in welcoming A&M, a program that last won a national title in 1939 (five different SEC schools have won one just in the BCS era) and has rarely even contended for a Big 12 title (winning its sole crown 13 years ago). Since the Big 12 began in 1996, the Aggies have won 106 games, which would tie them for seventh-best in the SEC over the same time period. Would the SEC reconfigure for a seventh-place team?
But think back to SEC Media Days last month. Slive mostly reiterated the same stance on expansion while on the podium, but in a later side conversation with reporters he made this eyebrow-raising remark: "I could get to 16 [teams] in 15 minutes." If the nation's premier football conference is really about to invite Texas A&M, it's likely as part of a grander plan.
In line with that thinking, Matt Hayes of the Sporting Newsquoted a high-ranking SEC source Thursday night saying any expansion would likely be to 14, not 13 teams.
Going to 14 or 16 makes more sense, since it would be incredibly risky for the conference to mess with one of its most compelling attributes: the symmetry of its two generally balanced divisions, which helped turn the SEC Championship Game into a marquee event. That said, Oklahoma is no longer interested in the SEC (it's not as threatened by The Longhorn Network and will likely remain tied to Texas and Oklahoma State), and the two schools Hayes mentioned as additional candidates, Missouri and Virginia Tech, aren't particularly sexy.
But then on Friday, longtime Florida State beat writer Tom D'Angelo of The Palm Beach Post reported that FSU officials "have been flirting with the SEC for several months" and that "the discussion is now getting more serious, according to sources." FSU President Eric Barron downplayed the rumors Friday, and these types of nebulous stories often generate far more buzz than may actually be merited. But I have to say: Adding Florida State would most definitely be a Slive move.
Obviously, the SEC already owns Florida's television markets, but much like the Big Ten's addition of Nebraska (and its meager 1.8 million population), this would be more about adding a brand-name program that attracts viewers nationally. A&M brings the massive Dallas and Houston TV markets, and FSU brings a whole new set of marquee TV games.
But conventional wisdom says that officials at Florida (and perhaps even Georgia, Alabama and Auburn, too) would try to block FSU's addition for recruiting reasons. And maybe this whole thing really is about TV sets. In that case, it may well be that Virginia Tech (Washington D.C./Virginia) and Missouri (St. Louis/Kansas City) are next in line. But Virginia Tech officials preemptively shot down potential SEC overtures Friday. And would Slive really go after a school (Mizzou) that his arch-rival Jim Delany deemed unworthy last summer? There's also been speculation about North Carolina, but considering the football program's current NCAA imbroglio, that would be a risky move for a conference that's struggled to clean up its own act.
None of these schools make perfect sense for the SEC. But if A&M to the SEC is as inevitable as is currently being portrayed, it's almost certain at least one of them will be following the Aggies.
I was dead wrong about realignment being done for the near future. The SEC's potential seventh-place program may soon set off more dominoes than we saw fall a year ago.