If you want to feel better about our political journalism corps, then head on over the sports pages. No one can beat the sports pages for poorly sourced rumors, open currying of favor with sources and the very people/teams reporters cover, rooting for the home team, and buying nonsense PR statements at face value. But it is a heck of a lot more fun (and less harmful) than when the political journalists do it! So let’s dive right in!
While the SEC did a good job of managing the media to get the media to report the spin that the SEC had “denied” Texas A&M, those that carefully parsed what the SEC said realized that the SEC was hardly closing the door on anything – they simply appeared to be trying to tap the brakes and to paint the picture of the SEC as a responsible, conservative organization that is hardly out there eagerly looking to raid other conferences.
Aside from litigation avoidance, I suspect that the SEC realizes that they have some internal issues to work through before they can do anything. There are some serious questions to be answered about which program would be invited to be the SEC’s 14th team. Every member of the SEC has self-interest at heart. Certain schools do not want to extend invites to in-state rivals. Other schools don’t want to add an unattractive 14th program just for the sake of getting a foothold in Texas. Remember also, as I’ve said before, that there are serious questions of divisional alignment. If they add two western schools, then there almost certainly would be some shifting.
I believe that the SEC views adding Texas A&M as a no-brainer. I don’t think this story would have developed the way it has unless Texas A&M wants the SEC and the SEC has at least suggested that it wants Texas A&M. If I am right, then the problem really lies with that 14th team. The litigation stuff is mostly posturing and politics. The SEC and A&M have to be careful, but I doubt they’re going to let the Big 12 scare them off by floating rumors of potential lawsuits.
In getting that 14th team, the SEC has to cobble together agreement of a super-majority of schools. While I suspect that Arkansas would welcome a school like Missouri, distant schools like Florida, Georgia, or Tennessee may view a program like Missouri as far more trouble than it is worth. Texas A&M is distant, but it represents the promise of a vast, lucrative market, a better toehold in a recruit-rich area, and a compatible football-mad culture. Missouri? Will the SEC fool itself into thinking that if they capture Missouri they’ll somehow capture St. Louis and Kansas City?
If the SEC invites a western school as the 14th program, then they almost certainly will have to engage in shuffling of divisions. LSU isn’t leaving the western division, as it is a natural rival for Texas A&M (as is Arkansas). Does the conference split up Ole Miss and Mississippi State or Auburn and Alabama? My guess is that none of those programs will be happy with that kind of split. To me, the easiest solution if they have to realign the divisions is to convince either Kentucky or Vanderbilt to shift divisions and then move Alabama and Auburn both to the east. But not only does that mean the SEC is going to have to make Vandy or Kentucky happy with that, but they’re also going to have to satisfy Alabama, Auburn, and any east division school that is unhappy about making their division much tougher. My guess is that there are going to be a number of schools that protest divisional realignment, because I suspect everyone is quite comfortable with where they are at right now.
So if divisional realignment is out, then the 14th team either has to come from the east – or at least must be a school that can plausibly be placed in the East Division. And there comes the next problem. Most of the obvious choices are either unlikely to be interested in the SEC (UNC, Virginia), not very appealing (NC State, West Virginia), not very good fits culturally or geographically (Maryland), or are in-state rivals of existing SEC schools (Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Miami, Louisville). If you take away the list of in-state rivals, you really take away the best fits for the SEC, with the possible exception of Virginia Tech (assuming the SEC finds them appealing).
Unless the SEC takes a program like Virginia Tech as a compromise pick, then the conference is basically left with three options:
(1) Reject Texas A&M’s entry and perhaps lose this opportunity forever;
(2) Grant A&M entry, take another western school, and find an acceptable compromise on divisional alignment; or
(3) Grant A&M entry and take an eastern school for balance, likely taking a second-tier pick just for the sake of getting A&M or getting someone to drop their objection to adding an in-state rival.
Remember that while it may be the case that every single SEC program wants to avoid option number one, if they can’t come to an agreement on that 14th program, and the logistics that come with it, then they may have no other choice.