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SEC's Biggest Stories in 2011 No. 1: The New SEC

One some level, the biggest story in the SEC in 2011 shouldn't come as a real surprise to anyone. After all, we wrote more than 80 posts in our conference realignment coverage, and even that number seems unrealistically low in light of the way the story dominated much of the college football season this season. Even when college football fans wanted to focus on what was happening on the field, some new story would come to jerk our attention back toward the back-room dealings that were reshaping the sport's most basic structure.

In fact, when Year2 first linked to the rumors coming out of Texas that A&M was once again interested in joining the SEC, we weren't quite sure how seriously to take it. There was plenty of reason to be skeptical, after all; we had been down this road with Texas A&M back in 2010, and this year's deal was declared dead (or to have never been truly alive) more than once.

Then, Rick Perry opened his mouth -- something we were all were about to discover is usually a bad idea. Suddenly, the rumors went mainstream. The next thing we knew, Texas A&M was moving board meetings up to vote on realignment, and the SEC was meeting to consider Texas A&M. By mid-August, it seemed like realignment would be done within a matter of days.

It wasn't. The matter dragged out for a couple of more weeks, and the once again looked like it was just about to be settled. That is, before Baylor President Ken Starr began saber-rattling about a legal challenge to A&M attempts to bolt the Big 12.

All the while, SEC fans were debating the merits of adding Texas A&M and a yet-to-be-determined 14th team. In something that's rare but not unprecedented, the issue split the editors of this blog, with Year2 hoping the threat of a Baylor lawsuit gummed up the works and myself feeling that the time had come to pursue the perfect expansion opportunity for the SEC. But when Mike Slive said that he expected A&M to join the conference in 2012, that was pretty much all she wrote about blowing up the deal.

While we were waiting for it to become all official, the ACC stunned everyone by swooping in and taking Pitt and Syracuse, a move that led to more than one premature obituary for that league. West Virginia was left to basically ask for any league that looked viable to save it. The SEC, though, was already supposedly interested in adding Missouri as the 14th team.

Then, when it seemed like the Big 12 and the Big East might both spin apart, the Pac-12 or Oklahoma (depending on to whom you listen) suddenly threw on the brakes. The Pac-12 would remain at 12, Oklahoma would remain in the Big 12, and Texas A&M was apparently free to go to the SEC. Within days, it did.

There was still the little matter of actually adding a 14th team, with doubts raised early about whether Missouri would be able to get the necessary votes to be added to the SEC. After a similarly length process, with legal maneuvers and multiple votes members of the university board who probably thought they would never be in teh spotlight, the Tigers joined the SEC shortly after the Game of the Century ended.

Conference realignment is by no means over for college football. The Big East is still trying to add members now that West Virginia and TCU accepted invitations to the Big 12, and the legal battle between the Mountaineers and the conference they are leaving is expected to drag on for months, if not longer.

But for now, it seems that the SEC is done. Next season, the SEC will embark on the next era of its history, one that will likely be profoundly different that its past and one that will be profoundly similar at the same time. It was ironic that critics were wondering whether Texas A&M and Missouri would be able to compete in the SEC -- at the same time that 1992 additions South Carolina and Arkansas were having arguably their most successful seasons since joining the league 20 years earlier.

In time, the SEC will accept its new members as part of the family, if for no other reason than that's what the SEC does. And it's one of the reasons that the conference was the one looking for new members in 2011, and not one of the ones scrambling to survive.