Future SEC expansion might bring Dawgs some new rivals

Having Clemson join the SEC might mean the Dawgs and Tigers would play each other more frequently. (Rob Davis/UGA)
Rob Davis

What will Georgia’s SEC football schedule look like in three years?

It seems like college football is evolving so quickly that, every time you think you’ve gotten a handle on the changes being wrought by new wrinkles such as the transfer portal, or rules on players’ name, image and likeness, something else comes along to scramble the picture.

If you consider last summer’s announcement that Texas and Oklahoma will bolt the Big 12 for the SEC by 2025 to have been the start of a new round of conference reconfiguration, the other shoe dropped with the recent news that Southern Cal and UCLA plan to join the Big 10.

That raised the prospect of another fruit basket turnover on the college football scene, with the most likely scenario being the Big 10 and SEC luring the better programs from the other conferences, until the Power 5 is consolidated into a Power 2 — or, possibly, Power 2+ if the remnants of the Pac 12, Big 12 and ACC decide to band together in some sort of unwieldy coalition.

The conference where “It just means more” looks on the road to becoming half of a Power 2. (Perry McIntyre/UGA)
Perry McIntyre, Dawgnation

I know, I know. The past couple of years have been a lot for college football fans to take in. And, you’ve hardly wrapped your mind around the way things are, when, all of a sudden, another change looms. First, there was the portal, then NIL, then the probable end of divisions in the SEC. Now, we face the prospect of wholesale reconfiguration of all the conferences, including the one UGA calls home.

I know some fans hate these changes, and tend to blame everything on NIL, as if students finally getting a share of the millions made off their name and talent somehow is the root of all evil.

Certainly, the “wild west” in recruiting set off by players having NIL rights is unsettling, but, sorry, the arrival of superconferences has nothing to do with whether student athletes make money or not, and everything to do with television. Yes, as usual, it’s all about the Benjamins.

Already, there has been a growing gap between the two biggest moneymakers, the SEC and Big 10, and the other three conferences in the so-called Power 5, and that’s thanks to the mega TV deals the top two leagues have negotiated. Schools in the other conferences pay out many millions of dollars less to their individual schools annually, because their TV deals aren’t as good.

And, that’s largely why Texas and Oklahoma decided to join the SEC, upping it to 16 teams, and, more recently, USC and UCLA announced their impending move from the Pac 12 to the Big 10, which also will have 16 members.

Meanwhile, the other conferences and their schools fret, especially the ACC, which is locked into a long-term TV deal that isn’t nearly as lucrative.

North Carolina would make a natural “new” rival for UGA if it joined the SEC. (AJC file)
AJC file, Dawgnation

(Let’s pause for a moment to note how the Big 10 stabbed the Pac 12 in the back after signing a scheduling “alliance” with it and the ACC last year, in response to the SEC’s expansion. The West Coast conference’s problems aren’t over, either. While it’s trying to hammer out an ESPN TV partnership with the ACC, there’s a strong chance that Oregon and Washington will bolt, and there are reports that the Big 12 is looking to poach six of the Pac 12′s remaining schools.)

Here’s the bottom line: If a school wants a bigger payout for its athletic programs in the future, it will have to become a member of one of the Power 2.

And, so, the era of the superconferences finally is upon us.

There are a lot of problems with the idea of superconferences. One of them is the problem of coast-to-coast travel for away games. Another is that too many members in a conference means that, either some of them rarely get to play one another, or longtime rivalries need to go away, in order to open up the schedule. Also, conferences that no longer occupy a compact, contiguous footprint will lack regional identity for fans or teams.

As a college football traditionalist, I abhor the idea. But, as someone who considers himself a realist, I think it’s inevitable. I expect that when the upcoming game of musical conferences is finished, and all the best programs have joined the SEC and Big 10, what remains will merge into a power-league wannabe that will try to convince everyone that it belongs in the top tier, while it really will have more in common with Division 1 college football’s second tier, currently known as the Group of 5.

So, let’s just assume that the remaking of college football into a Power 2 (or 2+) is a fait accompli. As a fan, how would you like that to work out? And, once it has, what new rivals would you like to see for the Dawgs?

Georgia and Florida State haven’t played each other since the 2002 Sugar Bowl. (University of Georgia)
University of Georgia, Dawgnation

That’s what I asked myself after looking at a multitude of possible cases of conference-jumping or poaching being discussed. First of all, having already snapped up Texas and Oklahoma, I don’t think there’s much of interest for the SEC left in the Big 12. Maybe, if they needed to even up the eventual numbers of teams down the road, West Virginia or Oklahoma State might be prospects, but neither would be a high-priority add. No, the top possible additions to the conference where “It just means more” are Clemson and FSU.

This would appear to be an obvious move for both the SEC and those schools, which seem likely to leave the lagging ACC, despite dreams of the latter being saved by having Notre Dame join as a full member, including for football. Let’s face it, that’s probably not going to happen. If the Fighting Irish feel they must join a conference, the Big 10 is their most likely destination.

Back to Clemson and FSU: Both have similar program expectations and comparable fan bases to SEC’s existing programs, and would add value to the conference. (Yes, the states of South Carolina and Florida already are in the SEC footprint, but the conference certainly wouldn’t turn down the Tigers, a national power for most of the past decade, or the Seminoles, a past and possibly future contender.)

Plus, from a UGA fan’s viewpoint, Clemson joining the SEC might make it easier for the storied Dawgs-Tigers rivalry to be played more frequently (depending on what sort of scheduling formula the conference bosses adopted).

It’s true that the ACC has its members locked into a grant-of-rights deal running through 2036, which makes it very costly for a school to leave the conference. But, even if they believe that restriction would hold up in court, Clemson and FSU might think it was worth it, in order to tap into the greater riches they’d get as part of the SEC.

Central Florida might seem a long shot for SEC membership, but the Knights gave UGA one of its most hurtful losses in the 2010 Liberty Bowl. (AJC file)
Mark Humphrey, Dawgnation

Beyond those two schools, the other ACC members that I think would bring some value to the SEC are North Carolina and Virginia.

Why North Carolina? The Tar Heels are the flagship school in a state that the SEC would like to enter. Also, UNC is competitive in football, if not exactly elite, and its addition to the conference would kick SEC basketball up a big notch. On top of that, UNC is a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU), a prestigious group of research schools, which would add some academic prestige, an area where the SEC might want to burnish its reputation a bit.

(And while it’s not really a factor in all of this, the Tar Heels also have those really cool “Carolina blue” uniforms. Just sayin’.)

I could see UNC, once one of UGA’s nearly-annual foes, becoming another rival for the Bulldogs, too. You know, the nation’s two oldest public universities really ought to compete with each other more often.

As for my other choice from the ACC, I originally was thinking Duke, because it would be neat to bring their storied basketball rivalry with UNC to the SEC, and the SEC presidents might like adding another academically prestigious school. (The only current SEC schools who are AAU members are Florida, Missouri, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt.)

But, as my son (who has degrees from both UGA and UNC) pointed out, while Duke is prized for its basketball and academics, its football program isn’t built to compete in any superconference. In addition to not fielding very good teams, the Blue Devils suffer from low attendance and their fan base just doesn’t have a burning cultural interest in their team being really great on the gridiron.

UVA, on the other hand, also brings a strong academic rep, has a recent basketball national championship, and can squint and see the infrastructure for a decent football program. Plus, it would bring the SEC closer to the DC television market.

Yes, Duke would boost the SEC in basketball, and, like UNC, it’s a member of the AAU. However, Duke is more akin to Vanderbilt, when it comes to football, and the SEC doesn’t need another Vandy. Plus, Virginia also is an AAU school.

I know a lot of folks might think that, on paper, the University of Miami might seem like a higher profile program and, therefore, a better fit than Virginia, seeing as “The U” (as it likes to call itself) is located in a major market, and has a more illustrious football past. However, the Canes haven’t been nationally relevant in football in more than 20 years, and they’re known for having a meh fan base. Also, Miami doesn’t have much in common culturally with Athens, Tuscaloosa, Oxford or Austin.

In addition, the big private school is prone to going its own way (it’s one of the places where the idea of NIL collectives really took off), and I’m not sure how well the Miami program’s mindset would mesh with the rest of the SEC.

Georgia and Oklahoma have played each other just once, in the Rose Bowl, but that will change when the Sooners join the SEC. (AJC file)
Reann Huber, Dawgnation

Of course, a lot of folks think that North Carolina might feel more at home in the Big 10, and that largely Midwestern conference obviously would love to get into the South. If that’s how things end up, taking rival N.C. State away from the ACC might be a good way for the SEC to add the state of North Carolina to its footprint. Yes, the Wolfpack probably would be, at best, second tier in the SEC, but they do have a pretty strong fan base, and some of the money they’d get from their new conference could help them become more competitive.

So, if you add Clemson, FSU, North Carolina and Virginia to an SEC that already has added Texas and Oklahoma, you end up with a 20-team conference that still has a geographic identity, and also covers some of the most talent-rich areas of the country for college athletics recruiting.

Frankly, I don’t really see any programs in the Group of 5 conferences that would add anything to the SEC. However, if the conference, for some reason, feels the need to grow to more than 20 members — some in college football see the SEC getting as large as 24 teams — then Central Florida of the American Athletic Conference might be worth consideration. That’s also a situation where either Oklahoma State or West Virginia might be deemed (barely) SEC-worthy.

Or, perhaps absorbing more of the likely doomed ACC would be a better fit, in which case, Miami and Virginia Tech might be the best choices. Yes, there are some name programs out on the West Coast that likely will be looking for a new home (any home) once the Pac 12 falls apart, but they don’t have much in common with the SEC in terms of culture, and they’d blow the schools’ travel budgets to hell. Really, I think 20 members sounds like an optimum number, even for a superconference. (One argument against adding too many schools is that it splits the conference’s TV payout more ways.)

Post-script: I’d already picked my list of likely additions to the conference when, late this past week, a swimming website reported that North Carolina, Florida State, Clemson and Virginia all are negotiating to join the SEC, and that ESPN is trying to void their TV deal with the ACC.

I have no idea how good that site’s sources are, and some other folks who cover college football have been dismissive of that report.

Still, the way things are these days in the sport, nothing is too far-fetched to be believable.

Except maybe Notre Dame joining the SEC.

UGA News

NextSeason outlook for the Dawgs: Welcome to life at the top
Leave a Comment