Pooch kicks: SEC upheaval, and an unseen opponent this season

Adding Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC doesn’t appear to be a very popular idea with fans, but that probably won’t matter. (Getty Images)
Getty Images

It’s difficult to find anyone who thinks adding Oklahoma and Texas to the Southeastern Conference is a good idea — except, probably, the bean counters anticipating how the expansion might trigger a renegotiation of the conference’s new TV deal, resulting in bigger payouts to the member schools.

Of course, traditionalists, as expected, are against expanding the conference’s footprint further into the Southwest, but, let’s face it, the 21st century version of the SEC doesn’t really give a damn about tradition — unless it’s good for business, as in Georgia and Florida continuing to play in Jacksonville.

From a competitive standpoint, it’s hard to see how any of the schools involved — including Oklahoma and Texas — would benefit. No matter how the scheduling of the conference ended up being handled (more on that later), the Sooners certainly would face a tougher road to the College Football Playoff through the SEC than they do as the big dog of the considerably weaker Big 12. Having to deal with the likes of Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Florida on a regular basis definitely is a tougher row to hoe.

I can only imagine they’re figuring that, with the proposed expansion of the playoff to 12 teams, there’ll likely be room for the SEC champ, the runner-up, and, some years, maybe even a couple of additional teams. (Some conference die-hards see the SEC actually taking half those playoff spots some seasons!)

Georgia and Oklahoma, who most recently met in the Rose Bowl, already have future games scheduled. (Getty Images)
Getty Images, Dawgnation

Also, joining the SEC certainly wouldn’t help the on-field chances of Texas, a school whose legend far out-looms its current place in college football (despite a bowl win over an uninspired Georgia team a couple of years ago). The Longhorns still sell more merch than most programs, and they have their own TV network, but they haven’t been relevant from a national competitive standpoint in years, and it’s hard to see how being in a tougher conference would help. (Plus, they’d still likely have to play Oklahoma ever year.)

Maybe the officials at Texas think being in the nation’s top conference would make it easier for them to recruit. But, with the likes of Nick Saban, Kirby Smart, Jimbo Fisher and the ACC’s Dabo Sweeney already hoovering up prospects, that looks like a long shot.

And, while on the subject of Texas’ TV network, Longhorn Nation isn’t known for playing well with others. What considerations might they try to exact from their new conference in order to agree to fold their TV operation into the SEC Network?

And, there’s also the question of what having Texas in the conference would do to its culture. Do we really want a school that’s used to getting its own way complicating life in the SEC? We already have Alabama and Auburn for that.

As for the conference itself, my initial reaction when I first heard the report about the Sooners and Longhorns wanting to join the SEC was, “We don’t need them.” I can see how adding those two schools would bolster the reputation of the Big 10 or Pac 12, but the SEC already is considered the best league in college football.

Texas won its most recent meeting with UGA, but the Longhorns aren’t the powerhouse they were in the past. (Bob Andres/AJC)
Bob Andres, Dawgnation

Still, that brings us back to my original point about the potential financial windfall to conference schools from making ESPN up the ante in the $300-million-a-year TV deal with the SEC that’s set to take effect in 2024. Greed tends to rule in sports nowadays, so, yeah, I see why most observers think this definitely is going to happen.

While the Oklahoma-Texas news first reported by the Houston Chronicle dominated the sports news cycle and an otherwise rather humdrum SEC Media Days this week, it should be noted that, even though it appears from the nondenials issued by the two schools and the SEC that the expansion idea is the real deal, it’s still not a fait accompli.

It takes 11 of the current 14 SEC schools to approve such a plan. Two schools appear to be against it: Texas A&M, which went public with its opposition (the Aggies like being the only SEC school in Texas), and Missouri, another refugee from the slowly imploding Big 12, which reportedly is opposed.

There’s always the slim chance that another one or two schools might weigh other considerations above money, and vote nay. Certainly, adding two more competitive schools to the mix would make it much tougher for the conference’s second tier — including Auburn, Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky — to sniff a playoff bid. Might one or two of them put competitive concerns over the almightly dollar? Yeah, I know, sounds like a pipe dream.

(I’m counting Bama, Georgia, LSU and Florida as the conference’s top tier, though you could make a case for the Tide being on a level all by themselves.)

Suffice it to say, the odds favor expansion, which brings us to the practical impact of having to schedule 16 teams.

While some fans initially figured that the conference might just plop one of the two new teams in the SEC West and the other one in the East, and have two eight-team divisions, there’s a lot of resistance to that idea. Even with 12 teams, the SEC only playing eight conference games a year — while protecting traditional cross-division rivalries like Georgia-Auburn — means schools go quite a few years without ever playing home-and-homes with some teams from the other division. (Georgia still hasn’t traveled to Texas A&M, which joined the conference in 2012.)

It seems more likely that the conference might do away with the two divisions and go to four “pods” or mini-divisions of four teams each, with teams playing all three of their other podmates each season, while rotating through the others. Add a ninth conference game, and that looks even better (especially since it probably would get rid of cupcake nonconference opponents). The two teams finishing the regular season with the best won-lost records would play in the championship game. (There would, of course, have to be some undoubtedly complicated tie-breakers involved in determining those two teams some years.)

ESPN even offered up its own speculative version of what the pods might look like, having Georgia grouped with Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina. (Others see Vandy in Georgia’s pod, instead of Kentucky.) While preserving the Jacksonville bash (as well as the Iron Bowl, the Egg Bowl and Alabama-Tennessee), that plan would mean the South’s Oldest Rivalry between UGA and Auburn no longer would be an every-year affair.

ESPN floated its own idea of how a 16-team SEC might subdivide into pods for scheduling. (ESPN)
ESPN, Dawgnation

Of course, it’s always possible that the conference might choose to have both Florida and Auburn in Georgia’s pod, but, considering the sway Alabama holds (and the way things usually go for the Dawgs in conference politics), that seems unrealistic.

(It’s also worth noting that Georgia already has upcoming series scheduled with Oklahoma and Texas, whether they join the conference or not.)

As for what happens to what’s left of the Big 12, many of us don’t really care, but it seems likely it either will poach some schools from the Group of 5 conferences and try to limp on as a putative member of the Power 5, or, more likely, it will get eaten up by one or more of the other four top conferences, resulting in a new era of superconferences.

One final note: If I could pick any team to replace Texas as an addition to the SEC, it would be Clemson, which has much more in common with other conference members, is inside the conference’s traditional geographic footprint, and has longstanding rivalries with Georgia and South Carolina. However, as it stands now, the Tigers no doubt are happy as the nearly-automatic conference champ each year in the ACC.

Still, if the disparity between the SEC TV payout and what the ACC schools get from their deal grows large enough, you never know …

SEC gets serious about vaccinations

Besides winning on the field, Georgia and other SEC teams will have to take into consideration another, unseen opponent this football season.

This past week, as the NFL issued new edicts aimed at boosting the number of its players vaccinated against COVID -19, the SEC made it clear that schools with large numbers of unvaccinated players might suffer a competitive disadvantage in 2021.

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said that the conference does not plan on postponing or canceling any games this season due to teams not being able to field enough players because of the virus. The schedule simply hasn’t been built that way.

And, he raised the possibility that a team that can’t field enough players might have to forfeit.

Appearing as part of the SEC Media Days gathering, the commissioner urged conference teams to shoot for 100 percent vaccinated status of their players, while noting that only six of the 14 teams have reached 80 percent so far.

“That number needs to grow and grow rapidly,” he said, adding that “vaccines are an important and incredible product of science, not a political football. And we need to do our part to support a healthy society.”

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart appears at SEC Media Days. (Jimmie Mitchell/SEC)
Jimmie Mitchell, Dawgnation

Sankey declined to specify which schools are lagging. Alabama and Georgia are on record publicly as having exceeded the 85 percent mark, and sources have indicated LSU is in that territory, too.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Bama and Georgia also are the two schools that the SEC media voted this week are expected to meet in the conference championship game. Both teams’ head coaches are known for their dedication to doing whatever is necessary.

“We want our players to get vaccinated because it’s the right thing to do,” Smart said during his SEC Media Days appearance. “And, it’s safe.”

But, he said, vaccination also “can be a competitive advantage. If one school loses three players for a game and another school doesn’t, that’s a competitive advantage.”

Neither Smart nor Saban ever are likely to overlook a competitive advantage.

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