For the most part, I have tried to stay out of the role of cheerleading for or against the addition of Texas A&M to the SEC. The well-worn position of this blog is that the league is fine at 12 members, but that if the Aggies become available under the right circumstances, they must be added to the SEC.
There's no reason to change that position now. I understand and share the concerns that many of the opponents have with accepting Texas A&M to the SEC. The league is currently great at 12 members and has no immediate need to expand; adding A&M will only make a difficult march to the national championship that much harder; the addition of a new member would muck up what has been a cohesive and compact conference since it began and even through the expansion of the 1990s.
Were the status quo a viable, long-term option, I would agree that we should stay with the current line-up. But the status quo is not a viable, long-term option. Larry Scott has made it clear that the Pac-12 still hopes to become the Pac-16 some day. The Big Ten will say only that it is not in an "active" realignment stage, which almost certainly means that it is in a dormant realignment stage. And the tensions that have brought the Big XII to the brink of dismemberment this year are the same forces that brought it to the brink of dismemberment last year and will do so in the future until someone finally puts the league out of its misery.
There is going to be a major conference that will break the 12-team barrier some time in the next five years. And that league is going to change the fabric of college sports. It might as well be us.
Why? Because in conference realignment, as in life, the person who chooses first gets the best choice. The chances of A&M being added to the SEC if this deal falls apart, particularly if it's because the SEC said no, become almost nonexistent. That's perfect to someone who wants to keep things as they are, until you realize what that likely means. The SEC won't have A&M as its marquee choice in five years -- it will have Missouri and N.C. State and West Virginia. Those are nice schools, all of whom would make great choices to join Texas A&M. But they also lack one thing that A&M has -- a foothold in the lucrative and recruit-heavy Texas market. The SEC is going to be forced to expand eventually. If it expands without Texas A&M, the league will be much poorer for it.
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Will adding A&M and another team make the march to the SEC Championship Game, and the hopes of landing in the BCS Championship Game, that much more difficult? Yes and no. Undoubtedly, an Alabama team that has to run the current gauntlet and beat Texas A&M in a ninth SEC game will find it more difficult to do so. But I'm not sold that it will be harder for an SEC team to make it to the national championship game. A one- or two-loss SEC team would have a great argument to make the title game, an even better one than they already have. If the choices are between a one-loss Big XII champion with Texas A&M not in the league and a one-loss SEC champion with Texas A&M and another team in the league, which one are you as a pollster choosing? Even a two-loss team could leapfrog a one-loss team from a weaker conference, though that's unlikely.
As for whether Texas A&M will change the character of the SEC -- I don't buy it. The Aggies are a great program with a tradition that intersects our own and rivalries with LSU and Arkansas. They are no less an SEC team than Arkansas was, and I challenge anyone to continue to argue that the Hogs don't belong in our league.
If I get a little defensive on this subject, it's because I'm a South Carolina fan. We were part of the same expansion that brought Arkansas to the conference in the 1990s, and I am proud of the association with this conference, however irrational that might seem to people who have never understood the SEC fraternity. Having come to this conference as part of the last wave of SEC expansion, I'm a little bit anxious about slamming the door in the face of a qualified applicant.
And with South Carolina's SEC East title last year, it became quite clear that Arkansas and the Gamecocks have both earned their keep. The Razorbacks had already won the West multiple times. (Two or three, depending on if you count the year that they clinched the division despite having a worse record than NCAA-sanctioned Alabama.)
I'm sure that many of the traditionalists at the time lobbied to keep Arkansas and South Carolina out of the league in the 1990s, with many of the same arguments that are used today. At least in the case of South Carolina, a team that had never won anything except a 1969 ACC Championship in a lackluster 7-4 season, they had a stronger case then than the traditionalists have now.
That expansion turned out well, despite the fact that it made people like me a little bit queasy. I would think that the opponents then were pleasantly surprised. I believe that the opponents now will be as well, once Texas A&M and the 14th team prove that they belong.
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That 14th team is one of the reasons some are giving for a hesitance about accepting A&M. But the merits of accepting A&M are completely separate from the identity of the 14th team. Yes, the SEC will have to pick up another team. There is a time to vote on whether that team should be accepted -- when the SEC is considering whether to extend an invitation to the 14th team. Now is not the time for that vote.
But there's a final reason for the SEC presidents to vote yes on Sunday, or whenever the vote is held. They should approve an invitation to Texas A&M because it's the right thing to do. Conference presidents have given Mike Slive enough room to make this deal -- it hardly seems fair to jerk the rug out from under him and Texas A&M at the 11th hour. Slive did not go off and make this deal just because he felt like it; while he might not have actively consulted with all the presidents, I'm also sure that all of them have his cell phone number. If there were a large number of presidents with concerns about how the negotiations were proceeding, the time to voice them has already passed.
Texas A&M has gone this far on some sort of understanding with Slive. And they have done so despite having every reason to fear enormous political pressure from the state's power-brokers and other pressure from members of the Big XII. They have found themselves over the years in a position that no member of this conference would tolerate, and they are now asking for us to help them, and help ourselves and our member institutions in the process.
In a perfect world, we would never be in this position. But this is not a perfect world. Whether because of Texas' bullying or Jim Delany and Larry Scott's machinations or the grievances that seem to be built into the very fiber of the Big XII, the conference which A&M now calls home has never been that far from falling apart. They are simply trying to get ahead of the curve. And so far, it seems that the SEC has given them no indication to think that it won't help.
This is what the best organizations in any field do. They prepare themselves not for the perfect opportunity, but for the best remaining scenario. Accepting Texas A&M now is the best remaining scenario, whatever you might think of the plan on its merits. The presidents should do that whenever they vote. And they should do it with the full support of the SEC's fans.