For the last 20 years, the landscape of college football has dramatically changed with one seismic shift after another. The SEC has been at the forefront of many of these moves (see: expansion in 2010-11 and then last summer’s stunner with Texas and Oklahoma), but Thursday’s bombshell news that USC and UCLA were bolting the Pac-12 for the Big Ten left even the biggest powerbrokers in Birmingham surprised.
We can only hope Lincoln Riley at least had a heads up this time.
With Kevin Warren doing his best Littlefinger impersonation by stealthily gutting the silly “Alliance,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey was likely somewhere nodding, “Well played.”
As we march closer and closer to super conferences, more dominos are destined to fall. There’s too much money at stake and with no one in charge of the entire sport, conferences — namely the SEC and Big Ten — will continue to make moves that scoop up as many major TV markets as possible.
So what are the potential SEC ramifications?
Texas and Oklahoma + who else now?
Last summer, Sankey shocked the college football world by poaching Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12, with membership starting in 2025. It’s unclear if the USC/UCLA move to the Big Ten, which starts in 2024, could expedite OU and UT to the SEC, but it guarantees the Longhorns and Sooners won’t be the final additions to either conference.
The SEC’s swanky TV deal with Disney starts in 2024, so ideally, OU and Texas would be on the schedule a year early. The Big 12 exit fee is steep (like $75 million or more), though the SEC may be more incentivized to pay up now.
Sankey and Warren are in an arms race to build the best, baddest and biggest behemoth mega-conference, with both the SEC and Big Ten eyeing some of the same schools for a potential 20-team league.
The biggest brand on the market is Notre Dame, and the Irish are slowly being backed into a corner where it can no longer flex their might as an independent. Eventually (sooner than later), the Irish will need to join a conference to maintain its power and prestige.
It won’t survive financially otherwise.
With the ACC a tadpole compared to the whales of the SEC and Big Ten, the Irish won’t become a member there. They make more sense in the Big Ten, but would you put it past Greg Sankey for trying to land the best available brand?
The more likely reverberations will be battles for schools within the ACC. It’s a complicated situation because of the conference’s grand of rights deal — which doesn’t expire for another 14 years.
But that’s the exact reason the ACC is a non-factor in conference realignment, so with the league vulnerable, schools are motivated to find creative ways (maybe eat some short-term money for a more secure financial future) to exit the ACC for either the SEC and Big Ten.
Clemson, Virginia Tech, Florida State and NC State are all potential options for the SEC, as is Miami and North Carolina. Sankey’s biggest advantage is that unlike the Big Ten, the SEC’s footprint still makes sense on a map.
That’s why adding a North Carolina — both for its athletic and academic prestige — would be so attractive.
While the rest of the Pac-12 is left scrambling, a wild card in future potential expansion is Oregon. The Ducks certainly act like an SEC institution but they could follow their former Pac-12 brethren to the Big Ten eventually as well. While Arizona and Arizona State both exist in one of the top TV markets in America, I don’t foresee either program becoming a legitimate interest of the SEC.
Lastly, could the SEC and Big Ten get really greedy and look to add even more teams by subtracting some schools already in the league?
Vanderbilt gets $80 million annually for being a member of the SEC. Same for Missouri. Could those programs be in danger of getting ousted in favor of bigger brands? It’s highly unlikely, but it’s happened before in college football, and anything is possible with the craziness surrounding all the realignment movement.
What does the news mean for the College Football Playoff?
Suddenly, Greg Sankey’s “blue-sky” SEC-only playoff doesn’t seem so outlandish anymore.
“There’s nothing, literally nothing, after the 2025 season,” Sankey said at the SEC spring meetings in June.
“From my view, we have to consider what happens after the 12-year cycle concludes.”
But there’s also now a very foreseeable path where the two super-conferences host their own playoff and then the winner of the SEC would play the winner of the Big Ten to crown a champion.
Is that great for the rest of the sport of college football? No. But that’s not Greg Sankey’s overarching concern.
Now, if Sankey were motivated to make a playoff that was more inclusive, Warren just delivered him even more leverage for a 12-team playoff with more at-large bids. The Big Ten has no reason to push for automatic qualifiers anymore. They’ll want as many bites at the apple now, too.
The Pac-12 now has zero weight to demand an automatic qualifier, so either we’re back to where we were a year ago with a 12-team playoff chalked with at-large bids or Sankey can breakout that “idea in a folder somewhere.”
What does the move mean for the future of SEC scheduling?
With the conference still negotiating various schedule models once Texas and Oklahoma join the league, Thursday’s news was another indicator that whatever the SEC decides will simply be temporary.
A nine-game schedule still makes the most sense, but Kentucky, Arkansas and others continue to push for an eight-game schedule, and that possibility remains until the College Football Playoff is resolved.