Will Texas A&M’s SECession pay off?

Despite the start of what’s promising to be a particularly interesting college football season, talk of messy NCAA conference realignment hasn’t ended. Debates about Missouri heading to the SEC, West Virginia leaving the Big East, BYU going to the Big 12 and other schools changing destinations are still well underway in early October.

Even though the dominoes haven’t all fallen into place on this latest batch of conference adjustments, one thing is certain; the school that started it all has a new home and the move will significantly alter the college football landscape for the foreseeable future. Texas A&M’s move to the SEC (in time for the 2012 season) kickstarted everything else, sure, but the question remains if it was the right move for the Aggies.

On one level, relocation makes a lot of sense for Texas A&M. The SEC is arguably the most dominant football conference in the NCAA at the moment, and their teams have won the last five BCS national championships. Their media rights revenues put them in an elite tier of conferences with the Big Ten and the Pac-12 despite their lack of a conference network, and the SEC’s status as a college football superpower isn’t going anywhere.

This week in the Associated Press poll, the SEC has the first- and second-ranked teams (LSU and Alabama respectively), plus a third top-10 team (No. 10 Arkansas) — more top 10s than any other conference. They also have three more teams in the Top 25: No. 15 Auburn, No. 17 Florida and No. 18 South Carolina. Even the teams that aren’t on that list aren’t pushovers, as the likes of Georgia and Tennessee are perennial powerhouses. The SEC is a conference to be reckoned with, and should remain one for some time.

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That’s particularly poignant when compared to the Big 12, the Aggies’ previous, and technically current, home. Over the last decade, the Big 12 has been consistently dominated by a handful of teams, particularly Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska. There were occasional breaks in the action, such as Mike Leach’s run at Texas Tech, but there was always a clear upper tier – and a relatively limited one.

With the departure of Nebraska for the Big Ten (and Colorado for the Pac-12) effective this season, the suddenly-fraudulently-named Big 12 (it started this season with 10 teams) looks much less appealing. Yes, teams like Oklahoma State have the potential to make things interesting in particular seasons (they were ranked No. 8 in this year’s preseason polls), but they don’t tend to be dominant year-in and year-out, or have massive fanbases that can swell TV ratings. That makes the conference a much less desirable sell to broadcasters, and that explains why the Big 12’s $480 million/8-year deal is so far behind its competitors.

The other element that made the move attractive for A&M was the desire to get out of the shadow of the University of Texas. Under commissioner Dan Beebe, who recently left by “mutual agreement,” the Big 12 had focused on keeping Texas (and to a lesser degree, Oklahoma) happy at the expense of the smaller schools. That included unequal splits of revenue, and, particularly irksome to the Aggies, an agreement that allowed Texas to start their own network through a controversial deal with ESPN. With the Big 12’s future in question and the chance to escape the Longhorns’ shadow and move to a more prominent conference available, it’s perhaps not all that surprising that Texas A&M jumped.

There are plenty of apparent benefits for A&M on the financial (better television deal, better revenue split), publicity (only SEC school in Texas, less juxtaposition with the Longhorns) and conference prestige standpoints. However, the deal may yet come back to haunt the Aggies from a competitive perspective. Thanks to college football’s ongoing lack of a playoff, the path to the BCS championship game generally involves going undefeated in a BCS automatic qualifier conference. Both the SEC and the Big 12 currently carry that distinction, and schools from both conferences have made it to the championship game regularly.

The difference is that the path to an undefeated season and a national championship berth looks much easier in the Big 12 than it does in the SEC; powerhouses like Texas and Oklahoma remain, but even those teams have occasional slumps (like the one Texas is mired in currently). If one of them’s down at the moment and you catch a few breaks against the other one, your chances of running up an undefeated record against the Iowa States and Kansas States of the world aren’t that bad.

Meanwhile, in the SEC, even if LSU and Alabama take steps back, you still have to contend with the likes of Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Auburn, Tennessee, South Carolina and more. It’s much easier to envision a prominent-but-not-dominant school like A&M going on a championship run in a top-heavy conference like the Big 12 than in a deep, loaded one like the SEC.

That’s not to say that this won’t work out for A&M when the they tip off the 2012 campaign in the SEC. Financial stability is always a good thing, and there are certainly benefits to being in one of the nation’s top conferences instead of an also-ran. Moreover, success wouldn’t have been guaranteed if they stayed in the Big 12; it might collapse with their departure, or lose its cushy path to the title game under a reworking of the BCS formula or a playoff system. That’s also not to say the Aggies will never win a national championship in their new conference: no one knows what the college football landscape will look like in 10 or 15 years, and maybe A&M will find a way to bolster their recruiting efforts and become a true perennial national power.

The point for the moment is just that while heading to the SEC makes sense for the Aggies on a variety of levels, it may make their lives on the field more difficult for the immediate future, at least.

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