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The Future of Expansion - Why The Big Ten Has The Upper Hand


The key to sustained success in sports, just like in war and business, is thinking long term.  There's not a coach in college football that isn't paying as much attention to the 2011, 2012, and 2013 seasons as they are this fall.  That's because you can't build a dynasty in one fell swoop.  To win down the road, you have to start competing now -- first on the recruiting trail, then in the weightroom.  The same goes for conferences.

The Big Ten's goal in expansion has never been instant gratification.  The seeds of this process won't bear fruit for years to come.  Still, I'm convinced that through a careful and deliberate series of calculations (and concessions), Jim Delany has put our league in a position to write its own ticket.

Now that the buzz surrounding expansion has quieted into a patient hum, commentators have started to take stock of the changes.  It's only natural in competitive athletics to feel the need to frame the debate in terms of winners and losers.  A lot has been written this week about who came out of Round 1 on top.  One of the best written reviews comes from our friends at Team Speed Kills.  In their article wrapping up conference realignment, our southern colleagues called the Big Ten the "undisputed winner."  But something else in their analysis caught my eye.  As Cocknfire writes:

The SEC didn't win, but it didn't lose either. I've seen some people suggesting that the SEC was one of the losers in this, but that's mostly confined to those who want it to be true. Sure, the SEC didn't get Texas A&M, but part of the drive to get Texas A&M was the notion that the Big XII was spinning apart and the SEC had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a Texas team, make it harder for the Pac-10 to count to 16 and prepare the Megaconference Era. There will be no Pac-16 or Megaconference Era, meaning the SEC really has no need to add Texas A&M. It would be nice in some ways, sure, but it's not necessary and not a loss. After all, who exactly are the Big Ten and the Pac-10 following by going to 12 teams anyway?

I agree that on the surface the Southeastern Conference held its own.  But I also think that's precisely why the SEC lost some ground.  At the risk of sounding like one of "those who want it to be true," let me explain.

When I was an undergraduate I majored in philosophy -- an intimately satisfying and practically useless discipline.  One of my favorite philosophers was Peter Abelard, a French theologian who famously posed the following moral dilemma:

If you suffer a great loss without knowing it, do you lose anything at all?

I've thought about this a lot, and I think it depends.  In the world of expansion, the answer is yes.  So just what did the SEC lose?  It's simple.  They lost the ability to land the only real home run additions on their radar: Texas and Oklahoma.  I've thought from the beginning that the only way the Big Ten could be bested in the expansion game was if the Longhorns and the Sooners joined forces with SEC.  Let's face it, with the population shift towards the sunbelt, and recruiting imbalance, a Southeastern empire with Texas' talent and demographics would have put the league in pole position for decades to come. 

The athletes who grew up in Friday Night Lights country would dream of suiting up to play in Gainesville, Tuscaloosa, Athens, and Baton Rouge.  Sure, a number of premiere recruits from Texas already cross over.  But if the Longhorns were in the SEC, it would no longer be a defection.  Rather, every skinny blue eyed 12 year old would dream of playing in the only league they'd ever known.  That, combined with the obvious strength of the top end programs in the league would have made it extremely difficult for the pendulum that accounts for the sport's cyclical nature to swing back to the rust belt.

He's just not that into you.

Read between the lines: Texas' decision to stay in the Big 12 was also a decision to stay out of the SEC.  It's not the first time in history the Longhorns have rebuffed the South's advances.  As an aspiring elite public university Texas doesn't think it fits in a league that (for better or worse) appears to value endzones more than endowments.  That's not to say that the SEC isn't home to a number of excellent institutions.  I would gladly enroll at any one of them.  It's just not right for the orange and white, and that's something that isn't likely to change anytime soon.

But why does that hurt a brand that's home to the last for national champions?  It doesn't in the short term.  But it might down the road.  That's because for the first time the SEC is land-locked.  Aside from Oklahoma, the league has no real prospects of adding a worthy suitor west of Fayetteville.  (The Sooners, incidentially, appear to committed to staying with the Longhorns wherever they go).  Other major programs who would likely welcome an invitation into the league like Florida State and Miami face strong resistance from the Gators -- who (rightfully) have a great deal of influence on the Commissioner.


The only way realistically that the SEC can expand on its current footprint is by heading (gasp) north into Virginia and West Virginia.  Although they could make easy strides by adding the Mountaineers and the Hokies, it's not the same as getting Texas (or Texas A&M).

It's also not the same as the caliber of run home additions remaining on the Big Ten's wish list: Notre Dame, and (still) Texas.

I'm not saying I want the Longhorns in our league.  But, I can't help but breathe a sigh of relief knowing they'll never go east.  And if and when the era of the superconference materializes, I can't help but feel we have the upper hand.