Conference Realignment: Texas A&M to the SEC, the Size of the Shakeup and 52-Card Pickup

Let's get the easy part of this out of the way first. Barring some unforeseen disturbance in the negotiations between Texas A&M and the SEC, the Aggies are headed for the SEC in 2012 or 2013. You can be against this, as some of our readers are, for it, or have mixed feelings about it, as I do. But the writing is on the wall. There's at least a 70 percent chance that the SEC will announce in the next couple of weeks that it has reached an agreement with Texas A&M to join the conference.

Three sources close to the situation said Texas A&M's regents board will meet on August 22 to deliberate and likely vote on an application to join the Southeastern Conference as early as 2012.

Texas A&M System spokesman Jason Cook denied reports that A&M has already agreed to join the SEC.

The Sporting News reports that the SEC is saying essentially the same thing. Which just means that it's not a "done deal."

"Way premature," the SEC source said. "Our conference presidents and athletic directors haven’t met about it, and that has to happen before anything goes forward. There’s a lot of work to do before we’re anything close to that."

When it's not taking a cheap shot at A&M in the form of a ridiculous reference to the school's honor code, Chip Brown's article at Orangebloods has some information that seems to be pretty credible. It's telling that the lawmakers who are being contacted are portrayed as asking A&M to consider keeping the band together -- not being threatened with some sort of legislative retaliation if the Aggies do leave. (And, news flash to Texas: SEC teams play rivals from other conferences all the time. There's no reason to break up that rivalry if A&M heads to the SEC.) But I don't buy Brown's reporting that the SEC would move to 16 teams by taking Oklahoma and Oklahoma State -- according to most reporting, Slive has made it clear that he doesn't want Oklahoma if taking State is the price of admission.

The reason I think this deal is very unlikely to fall apart is that Texas A&M has to know that it's running out of turns. The Aggies were basically SEC-bound until Dan Beebe sat and watched others save the Big XIIish in 2010, and they've gone back and forth about a possible change for about a month now. Mike Slive is patient, as a businessman should be, but he's not going to let A&M jerk him around again. If the Aggies back away now, the prospect of A&M joining the SEC is dead for at least a generation. Slive will be around for several more years, and some of the presidents and athletics directors who will have to vote on an invitation will be around even longer than that.

This is A&M's last chance, and school officials seem to realize that. There's no reason to go this far if you're not willing to pull the trigger.

Sure, formal votes have to be taken by the SEC presidents and the Texas A&M board of regents. But those groups are largely rubber stamps. Not because they're uninvolved, but because of the nature of universities and conferences. College presidents and conference commissioners keep their jobs by having a solid read on where their regents or institutions want to go. Slive and A&M president Bowen Loftin will be trusted to handle the details and hammer out the contract language -- when the voting bodies meet, everybody will know what the outcome will be.

- - -

Which is when things get interesting. According to Sporting News, the SEC wants to stop at 14. That means that another team has to be selected, and then conference realignment likely has to stop with no one else going to 16. The odds of that are pretty slim. That's the one thing that worries me the most about conference realignment, particularly one that begins with three weeks left until the football season.

In any case, the priority will be to find Team No. 14. The Mayor has a pretty good roundup of the factors that will play into the decision, though I think he leaves out one very important fact when he rules out N.C. State. This is not just about ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN3 and CBS.

Remember the three Daves? Sure you do, and you remember the local-news-quality broadcasts that used to bring the chopped liver game of the week (South Carolina (3-4) vs. Ole Miss (2-5)) to you each Saturday at 12:20something p.m. Those are now slightly better produced and sponsored not by some obscure financial institution but by ESPN under the banner of the "SEC Network."

It's not that you can't find the SEC Network in North Carolina, but you have to be trying. There are more major-network affiliates (those for ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) carrying SEC Network games in Alaska than in North Carolina. And that's because there's one in Alaska. (A Fox affiliate in Anchorage. Don't ask me, I have no idea.)

Part of the reason for that is that there's little incentive for anyone in North Carolina to actually watch SEC games. It doesn't affect any of the local teams in any tangible way, and there aren't a ton of SEC alumni in North Carolina.

If N.C. State can be peeled away from UNC and Duke -- and I have to admit I have very little insight into whether that would be possible, though the Wolfpack do seem to put more emphasis on football than either of the other programs -- then I think they make a viable candidate. And they change how much the SEC Network can make in North Carolina, and how much ESPN can pay the SEC.

That's not to say the first call will go to N.C. State -- I don't think it will -- but that the economics aren't always what they would appear to be at first glance. And that while it's hard to find a team that hasn't been named as an SEC candidate, the ones that seem obvious might not be the ones who get the calls.

- - -

The problem the SEC faces is that inviting the 14th team to the conference is going to make it almost impossible to stop at 14 teams. That's because there's no such thing as a small realignment.

Let's say the SEC somehow persuades Oklahoma or Missouri to jump ship on the smaller, faster, better Big XIIish. Texas goes independent, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State try to go to the Pac-12. Then things get interesting.

If Larry Scott and the Pac-12 invite Texas Tech and Oklahoma State -- and I think they might -- they won't stop at 14. Scott's goal in any expansion is going to be to capture his great white whale of a 16-team superconference, with Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri all likely targets (if the Tigers haven't moved to the SEC, in which case substitute Oklahoma). Even schools like Boise State and Baylor might get looked at. (I don't know that any of this is wise, but Scott proved a lot of people wrong with Colorado and Utah, so we'll see.)

At that point, the Big XIIish has completely imploded. Missouri could find not just Scott but Jim Delany also acting as a suitor. If the Tigers go to the Up North Conference, which is where they seem to want to be, then Delany has to find 14 or 16 -- maybe even if he can't get Notre Dame. There's only one logical place for the B1G to go, particularly if Kansas and Kansas State are looking West -- and that's to the Big East.

A raid that takes Pitt, Louisville, Syracuse, Connecticut and/or West Virginia to the B1G (I know, academics will likely sink the Moutaineers, but for the sake of argument) causes the Big East to unravel. The remaining schools could look to the SEC and the ACC.

At this point, it's hard to see a scenario where some conference doesn't end up at 16, forcing Slive and the rest of the SEC to take a look.

But wait -- say the more likely thing happens and the SEC doesn't get Oklahoma or Missouri. Then Slive begins talks with, probably in this order, Florida State, Virginia Tech and N.C. State. If one of those teams comes to the SEC, the ACC will likely raid the Big East for more teams. That opens up teams that might want to go to the B1G, and the cascade effect goes from East to West instead of the other way around. In other words, it's hard to see a scenario where every conference stops at 14 teams or less, simply because the team the SEC poaches for the 14th probably causes a league to fall apart and attract other conference commissioners like vultures.

In other words, Texas A&M joining the SEC unleashes the college conference equivalent of 52-card pickup. There will be a mad, three-week scramble to try to decide where every program in the country ends up by the time the 2012 or 2013 season begins. It might last through the season and into the next offseason.

So if the deal happens, and I think it will, get ready. The tidal wave of conference realignment is coming. It might be fun, it might be dangerous and illogical, but it will certainly not be boring.

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