Below are my quick impressions for all of the realistic – or semi-realistic – contenders for an invite to the SEC (assuming the SEC really is going to expand). No team is going to leave the Big 10, so eliminate all those teams. Then there are schools that are simply too far afield from the SEC geographically. And then there are schools like Duke, which I find hard to believe would have even a scintilla of interest in the SEC and would be a terrible fit even if there was interest. Nevertheless, the list below is pretty extensive, so let’s get to it.
Clemson – Clemson gets SEC-level support from their fanbase, but a sustained two decade run of mediocrity has prevented Clemson from building its brand beyond the dedicated fanbase. Clemson has the tools to compete in the SEC, but would they really add any value to the SEC brand? Likely to face opposition from South Carolina.
Florida State – ACC was the right choice in 1990, but times have changed. FSU would take it, and it would provide the SEC with one of the top national name brands in college football (even after the struggles of the “Lost Decade”). Biggest question may be whether in-state rival Florida or natural recruiting competitors Alabama, Georgia, and Auburn are at all interested in adding FSU to the club. Ironically, that FSU might be the strongest possible addition (except perhaps Oklahoma) might be the very thing that makes an SEC invite impossible, thanks to the competitive instinct of nearby schools.
North Carolina State – Unlikely to be attractive to the SEC and unlikely to bolt Tobacco Road conference. But a possible fallback if the SEC needs an eastern school and refuses to add any schools from states where an SEC school already resides.
Maryland – Not a good fit in geographic or cultural footprint. Football program is second-tier. Basketball program would be a nice addition for the SEC, however. But basketball doesn’t drive the bus – especially in the SEC.
Georgia Tech – No one in the SEC is going to want another Vanderbilt situation, so there will be concern about whether Tech can seriously compete in the SEC. Georgia Tech’s football program is solid, but it hardly captures the imagination nationally and is even second in the hearts of its home state citizens. Basketball program in tatters only makes matters worse. The SEC has zero need to strengthen itself in Georgia Tech’s home Atlanta market. Likely to face opposition from Georgia.
Miami – Miami has struggled to compete financially and struggles mightily with attendance. They do have a solid national brand, however, and might be good for TV. Some SEC schools might also relish the opportunity to establish a bigger recruiting footprint in South Florida. Miami has shown that they can compete in football at a high level if they’re committed, but the administration’s focus on Miami’s image might clash with the SEC culture. Florida, which has been reluctant to continue this once solid rivalry, would likely object loudly.
North Carolina – UNC isn’t going anywhere without Duke. UNC has also been something of a traditionalist with respect to preserving the ACC and preserving their power in the ACC. Their recent football struggles and the suspicion that the powers that run UNC are uncomfortable with the big-time football beast suggest that UNC wouldn’t likely be interested even if the SEC was.
Virginia – Not a good cultural fit, although it might open more markets for the SEC. But is the SEC going to fall in love with entering the Virginia market? I doubt it. Virginia has struggled in both football and basketball for a while, meaning that they have little national brand right now and would struggle to compete, at least in football, in the SEC.
Virginia Tech – Virginia Tech has established a solid, if not quite elite, national brand. The Hokies would be competitive in football and have proven to be a competitor in basketball. There is a perception, however, that Virginia Tech is something of a paper tiger – beating up on mediocre opponents but unable to beat the truly elite teams. If Virginia Tech is raised for consideration, there will likely be someone in the room that points out that once Tech has to play an SEC schedule they may end up floating toward the middle and thus ultimately providing less value than it might appear at first glance. On the other hand, if the SEC gets caught up in the argument about adding schools in states where an SEC school already exists, then Tech might be a pretty good fallback option.
Kansas – In the unlikely event that the SEC completely disregards geographic and cultural fit and then decides to let basketball drive the bus while ignoring football, then, sure, Kansas is an option. In other words: highly unlikely.
Missouri – Missouri provides something of a fall-back option if the SEC needs to fill a 14th slot but (a) can’t get Oklahoma, and (b) refuses to take any school from a state where an SEC team already exists. Mizzou is OK in football and decent in basketball. They wouldn’t be a great cultural fit with the SEC, but they would probably make for a decent additional rival for Arkansas and Texas A&M.
Oklahoma – Would fit in well culturally with the SEC and would provide a top-shelf national brand in football. Only question is whether Oklahoma is interested and whether, if interested, Oklahoma would be able, politically speaking, to join the SEC without Oklahoma State.
Oklahoma State – As well as Boone Pickens might fit in with the SEC culture, a rich booster does not by itself make a school the right option. I don’t see the SEC adding Oklahoma State unless the SEC is determined to move to 16 schools and taking Oklahoma State is the only way to get Oklahoma. Without Oklahoma, Oklahoma State has no chance.
Texas – Texas wouldn’t be the only program with an outsized ego in the SEC, but Texas doesn’t need the SEC and apparently views the SEC with some disdain. In other words, Texas has too big of an ego even for the SEC. Texas would more likely go independent than join the SEC.
Texas A&M – It has become apparent that A&M wishes they had pursued the SEC the first time around, and now it is obvious that they want this bad. And it appears that the SEC wants into Texas badly enough that they’re willing to take on a football program that, despite solid tradition, has been foundering for a while. A&M doesn’t provide much of a national brand, but if the SEC is eyeing regional networks, then getting A&M into the fold is a good deal.
Texas Tech – I don’t think the SEC wants A&M badly enough to take Tech, but anything is possible. Tech isn’t a bad program, it just wouldn’t add any value to the SEC and I doubt the SEC relishes the thought of traveling to Lubbock.
Louisville – Provides a decent, if non-threatening football program while adding a good deal of value in basketball. Would Kentucky object, or since Kentucky isn’t very good at football would they welcome the opportunity to improve the SEC’s overall basketball product while adding fuel to the rivalry? Louisville isn’t a great option, but they are an OK option and, who knows, might be the beneficiary of political compromise.
West Virginia – West Virginia has decent tradition in football and a surging basketball program. There’s no doubt that West Virginia has solid fan support and they would probably be a decent cultural fit. But they are far afield geographically, they do not add much value beyond their home market, and their home market is not very large.
If the SEC adds a 14th team, expect a political battle to figure out which program will get that invite. One thing to remember in the political battle is that if the SEC adds two western teams, that means there will have to be some shifts in the football divisions. If the SEC is going to retain geographically balanced divisions (rather than sticking a team like Missouri into the East Division), they either have to add an eastern team as the 14th squad, or they’ll have to reconfigure the divisions. That process will complicate the political battle. The most obvious solution in my mind is to move either Kentucky or Vanderbilt to the West (to add to Texas A&M), and then shift Alabama and Auburn into the East Division. Would such a switch be welcomed by the schools already in the East? Would it be welcomed by Alabama or Auburn? Remember, there are plenty of moving parts in this, from maximizing profits, to preserving rivalries, to preventing rivalries from gaining equal footing, to maintaining competitive balance, to maintaining geographic and divisional integrity, and on and on.