If you can’t beat the SEC… join them?

Johnny Manziel

The endless years of NCAA realignment discussion seem to have died down for the moment, and Matt Brown’s recent Sports On Earth rankings have the SEC coming out on top. That’s not surprising. The conference has been the dominant NCAA football power for most of the last decade, winning the last seven BCS championships, and that success arguably carried over to the realignment realm, where they didn’t lose anyone and added two impressive schools in Texas A&M and Missouri. Considering how disastrously realignment went for many, that’s not bad at all.

Joining the powerhouse SEC has paid off for Texas A&M, too. As expected, the school’s profile has grown by leaps and bounds; in fact, it’s grown even further than expected thanks to what they’ve been able to do on the field. Part of that’s about coach Kevin Sumlin and freshman Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel, but another part of it is about the school’s new conference. As Andy Staples wrote at SI.com, the Aggies are a perfect fit in their new surroundings:

“No athletic program had more to gain from a rebranding than Texas A&M, and no conference needed a giant school in Texas more than the SEC. Those circumstances made this a perfect marriage even before football coach Kevin Sumlin proved to be the best hire of the 2011-12 offseason and quarterback Johnny Manziel jumped from a third-stringer on the Aggies’ depth chart to the Heisman Trophy winner in a span of nine months.”

The combination of being in a more powerful conference, being the only Texas school there and competing surprisingly well on the field has translated into success on the recruiting front, where the Aggies recently picked up top-ranked quarterback prospect Kyle Allen. Allen adds even further to the strength of A&M’s remarkable 2014 class, which was ranked first overall by Rivals in early June. Their class fell to a still-impressive fourth as of June 24, but with less players already committed than the three schools ahead of them. That’s a very solid performance, and one that owes a lot to the Aggies’ new SEC affiliation.

Perhaps A&M would have done as well in recruiting if they had performed well in the Big 12 last year, but a large part of their boost came from their success in high-profile matchups, particularly their triumph over eventual national champions Alabama on the road. That victory likely gave Manziel the Heisman, further solidified Sumlin’s stature as a coach on the rise and put the Aggies firmly into the national consciousness, and that game wouldn’t have happened without their move to the SEC. A&M fans may be swaggering around with “We control the Tide” t-shirts, but they also owe Alabama (and the conference’s other schools) for letting them into the powerhouse SEC and giving them the chance to knock off the Crimson Tide. The Aggies still deserve all the credit for that win, but it wouldn’t have happened without conference realignment. Without that victory, it seems highly implausible A&M would be landing this many top recruits.

Beyond that, though, playing in the SEC gives A&M the ability to distinguish themselves from longtime rivals Texas. As Frank Schwab writes at Yahoo!’s Dr. Saturday blog, while the two schools were both in the Big 12, A&M was generally seen as a lower-profile choice for recruits. Now they’re seen as the only Texas school in the SEC, which is a far better selling point:

 The Aggies have a different pitch now. They can sit in a recruit’s living room and ask if they want to come play in the greatest conference in college football. What is Texas going to counter with, a trip to Ames, Iowa?

The benefits for the Aggies go well beyond just the prestige of the SEC brand, too. Most critically, the SEC now has a TV deal that reflects the conference’s stature as a national powerhouse, one that  runs through 2034 and will pay each school upwards of $25 million annually thanks to the creation of the lucrative SEC Network (in conjunction with ESPN). That gives each SEC school plenty of money to invest in impressive coaching staffs, world-class training facilities, a great stadium and more. It’s not a coincidence that A&M is in the middle of a massive renovation to Kyle Field, expected to cost $450 million. It’s much easier to undertake a project like that, which should further enhance A&M as a destination for top recruits, when you’ve got a lot of money coming in down the road.

So, how can other schools find the kind of meteoric rise A&M has had? Well, the easiest answer is “Join the SEC,” but they’re not accepting further applications at the moment. It’s also notable that the move hasn’t yet paid off quite as extensively for Missouri just yet: yes, they’ll be raking in the money, but they’ll likely have to find more on-field success to become a dominant national presence on the recruiting front. The SEC tide does lift all boats to some degree, though, as even perennially basketball-focused Kentucky recently shot to the top of the recruiting ranks for 2014. Thus, if you’re in the conference already, things are looking pretty good for you. Beyond that, though, there is some hope.

The truth is, it’s not all about the conference. Boise State has risen similarly in the national picture, despite bouncing from the WAC to the Mountain West to the Big East and then leaving the Big East before playing a game to return to the Mountain West. They’ve also managed to get themselves some prime financial security, helping the conference earn a very favorable TV deal, and one that particularly favors the Broncos, upon their Mountain West return. A big part of what’s helped Boise State is similar to what’s boosted A&M, though; the Broncos have put forward a great on-field product, won over numerous fans and reaped the benefits from doing so.

Really, at the heart of it, that’s the key to the SEC’s success. It’s not anything mystical about the conference, but rather that so many of their schools have long histories of football success that’s helped to create such large and passionate followings (see Tommy Tomlinson’s take on Paul Finebaum, Alabama-Auburn and SEC rivalries for an example). Those passionate fanbases provide the money (both directly through ticket sales, merchandise, donations and the like and indirectly through TV ratings and contracts) that turns SEC schools into powerhouses, and that money in turn allows SEC schools to get even more powerful, do even better on the field and attract even more fans. It’s a loop, and one that seems likely to persist: getting involved in it seems like a great move for A&M.

For everyone else, the main counter may just be trying to develop similar passion in their own conference-wide fanbases. That’s easier said than done, though, so the future of college football may well hold a lot of S-E-C chants. The Aggies will just be happy to be on the inside chanting out.

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