I’ve generally stayed out of the conference expansion conversation except for saying that I want Clemson in the SEC East (both to renew the rivalry and, with any luck, to boost future book sales), but the discussion is just getting good now that the openness of Colorado, Missouri, and Nebraska to outside overtures makes it quite possible that the toppling dominoes of conference expansion in the 2010s could do to the Big 12 what the toppling dominoes of conference expansion in the 1990s did to the Southwest Conference; viz., bring about its demise.
This makes things more interesting because, frankly, the SEC is even less affected by the Pac-10 moving another state or two inland or by the Big Ten raiding the Big East than the SEC was by, well, the ACC raiding the Big East. The addition of Boston College, Miami, and Virginia Tech to the league with which our conference partially shares a geographic footprint affected our draw in the 2006 Chick-fil-A Bowl, but, otherwise, the impact on the league the Bulldogs call home has been minimal.
The breakup of the Big 12, however, would be a horse of a different color. The prize program in all of this, of course, is not Notre Dame (which the Big Ten alone covets; even the Big East is prepared to toss the Irish overboard in order to keep Pitt, Rutgers, and Syracuse in the fold), but Texas. I tend to trust Peter Bean’s flat declaration of the Longhorns’ disinterest in the SEC more than I trust the self-serving statements of a retired athletics administrator (particularly when those comments are quoted by league gadfly Paul Finebaum), but the simple reality is that, academic compatibility aside, distance makes membership in the Big Ten virtually impossible for Texas and the ‘Horns ain’t going noplace without the Aggies.
With all due respect to the institution whose football team lost to the ‘Dawgs in last year’s Independence Bowl, the Big Ten’s interest in adding Texas A&M to its membership isn’t slim to none, it’s nil to negative. I mean no offense by that assertion; in fact, I’m fairly certain a Big Ten fan’s reaction to the prospect of extending an offer of admission to the Aggies would be to turn his nose even farther up in the air, sniff theatrically, and say, "Texas A&M is like an SEC school." In other words, Aggie fans, I’m not insulting y’all; I’m saying they look down on us.
Yes, Texas A&M is a member of the hoity-toity Association of American Universities, but the Aggies were admitted in 2001. That makes them strictly nouveau riche in the eyes of the likes of Illinois (admitted 1908), Indiana (1909), Iowa (1909), Michigan (1900), Michigan State (1964), Minnesota (1908), Northwestern (1917), Ohio State (1916), Penn State (1958), Purdue (1958), Wisconsin (1900), and, by the Big Ten’s covetous and self-aggrandizing lights, Texas (1929). Personally, I don’t think they have any business being so high and mighty; there is, after all, a reason why this parody was set in Indiana. Even so, though, they can’t get Texas without Texas A&M, they don’t want Texas A&M, and, therefore, they ain’t getting Texas. Fair or unfair, that’s the way it is.
If the Big Ten bulks up to more than twelve teams, though, Mike Slive has made it clear that the SEC will remain at the forefront of college football in response. That probably means keeping up with the Joneses, which may or may not be a good idea; the league may need its mother to ask it, "If the Big Ten jumped off of the Empire State Building . . . ?" Nevertheless, a 16-team Big Ten likely will lead to a 16-team SEC, and a 16-team SEC contains room for the Aggies and the Longhorns in the West while accommodating the Seminoles and the Tigers (of the Palmetto State variety) in the East. (Don’t give me any of that Miami nonsense; Coral Gables is way the heck on down there, there’s nothing remotely culturally Southern about the institution or its location, the ‘Canes likely are a spent volcano, and "The U" is the last thing the conference needs for its image.)
Personally, I don’t know that I buy any of this; I’m not convinced that the Big Ten is really looking to do anything more radical than admit Notre Dame as its twelfth team, and I’m entirely convinced that the Big 12, the Pac-10, and the SEC will stand pat unless the Big Ten starts the line of dominoes toppling. I’d say Boise State jumping from the WAC to the Mountain West is far and away the most likely conference expansion scenario, and that move wouldn’t light the fuse for the rest of college football. If the Big Ten truly intends to initiate the era of the superconference, though, it isn’t hard to see how the Big 12 (itself a hybrid league cobbled together from the Big Eight and the pieces of the Southwest Conference) could be ripped apart and cannibalized for spare parts.
If that happens, the Lone Star State power brokers’ maternalistic insistence that the crown jewel of the republic’s higher education system take its little brother with it when it goes out to play may leave the Longhorns without a place to fall in either of their preferred destinations. Left without an inroad into one of the two conferences with automatic Rose Bowl bids, Texas could be compelled to do what it does not want to do.
Given the choice, the University of Texas would rather be affiliated with the Big Ten, the Big 12, or the Pac-10 than the SEC. The day may be approaching when all three of those options are unavailable, and, if that day arrives, there’s no question which will prove to be the most attractive alternative. Membership in the ACC, the Big East, or a conference currently lacking an automatic BCS bid would be financially, geographically, and practically untenable, and choosing to chart a course through the waters of athletic independence in the 21st century would be fraught with peril, particularly if Notre Dame enters the Big Ten and leaves Texas without a chair when the music stops.
At that point, the only option left would be to hook the ‘Horns to the Southeastern Conference; the lure of lucre would be too great after the sweetheart deal of the Big 12’s unbalanced revenue-sharing model evaporated and the Aggies’ obligatory inclusion proved to be a dealbreaker for the Big Ten. Texas may not want to join the SEC, and the SEC may not want Texas A&M to join, but you can’t always get what you want, and all concerned just might find they’re getting what they need. You should be surprised, but you should not be shocked, if Will Muschamp winds up becoming an SEC head coach without having to change ZIP codes.