The SEC will respond to the Big Ten adding USC, UCLA

There is a cliche in the business world, adapted from a William S. Burroughs quote, that says if you’re not growing, you’re dying. In the increasingly business-focused world of college football, that became more true than ever yesterday when the Big Ten added USC and UCLA.

On the Power 5 level, in terms of big programs that truly matter, only the SEC and Big Ten have grown recently. Which means, everyone else is dying. And to keep from dying, the SEC will react and add more teams. It’s only a matter of time.

It didn’t used to be this way. Reacting to other conferences’ moves wasn’t always a must.

When the SEC expanded to 12 teams, the Big Ten didn’t respond. It stayed pat when the Big Eight added some SWC programs to become the Big 12, and it didn’t flinch when the ACC raided the Big East to move to 12. Likewise, the SEC didn’t immediately do anything when the Big Ten added Nebraska to go to 12, only expanding a year later when Texas A&M approached Mike Slive looking for a new home.

Now though? A two-league race to add top programs is on.


For as long as I can remember, college football fans speculated about four 16-team superconferences. Why? I assume because the number of power conference programs has been around the 64 total that such an arrangement would mean.

When the 2010-era realignment happened, people tied themselves into knots trying to map out how it would lead to a quartet of 16-team leagues. The Pac-10 attempting to grab six Big 12 schools to go to 16 only magnified the image everyone already had in their heads.

The assumption at the time was that the Big 12 would eventually crumble completely and leave the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-16, and SEC the four superconferences, but the pieces never quite fit. To make it work, you’d have to do things like put Iowa State and Kansas in the Big Ten and Oklahoma State without Oklahoma and Baylor and TCU without A&M or Texas in the Pac-16. Those moves would make no sense.

Nevertheless, we still could’ve had a Power 4 arrangement, even if they weren’t a symmetric 16 schools to a league. Ultimately we now know that never happened because of the massive failure of the Pac-12 Networks.

How to sink a league

The Big Ten and SEC outpaced the rest of the P5 in money because of their TV networks. The Big 12 never started one, and the ACC was very late to the game.

The Pac-12 actually beat the SEC to the punch, but former commissioner Larry Scott completely bungled it. He created a single conference-wide Pac-12 Network with six separate regional networks for pairs of teams. The extra overhead of having seven different channels hurt profitability from the start.

The P12N was also wholly-owned by the conference, with the plan being to sell about half of it for a one-time windfall somewhere down the line. That decision had two consequences.

One, the league had to invest a bunch of money up front to get it going, which meant it effectively made no profits for years. Two, it had no greater media entity to help with carriage deals like the BTN had with partial owner Fox and the SECN had with whole owner ESPN. The P12N famously never made it on DirecTV, and to this day it still is hard to find even on streaming packages.

With the network being an albatross instead of a booster rocket, the Pac-12 fell behind. The conference should have shuttered the regionals to save costs and sold half the P12N to someone like Fox for literally any positive number to get help with carriage rights years ago. Now, it’s too late for any moves to matter.

State of play

The SEC has been and still remains in the most stable position. It has tons of money because It Just Means More. It also has a deep bench of powerful programs, many of which the Big Ten wouldn’t want because it only takes AAU schools.

Wait, what? The Big Ten taking SEC schools? How could one of those leagues possibly raid the other? Well, think about the reverse.

Something Andy Staples mentioned on his emergency podcast yesterday is that swiping USC and UCLA could be seen as a defensive move by the Big Ten. It’s insurance to make sure that there are two superconferences and not just one.

Suppose the SEC, with required legal distance of course, asked Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State if they’d like to come on down. Can you say now with 100% certainty that they’d say no? There’s a big gap between those three and the rest of the league. Look at the current B1G without them and the remaining 11 programs look a lot like a mishmash of the Big 12 and Pac-12’s leftovers once Oklahoma, Texas, USC, and UCLA have left.

If you’re not growing, you’re dying.

So with good reporters saying that we shouldn’t assume the Big Ten is done, we shouldn’t assume the SEC will stand pat at 16 either. It could take a while for more dominoes to fall, as most folks think the ACC’s grant of rights that runs through 2036 is pretty ironclad. I’m sure Birmingham has already paid billable hours to try to find loopholes.

Some member schools are doing that themselves according to reporting from The Athletic today, so we’ll find out if there is any wiggle room soon enough. We’ll also see if the party on the other side of the ACC’s grant of rights, which happens to be the aforementioned whole owner of the SEC Network, wants to help move some chess pieces around. After all, a report from a reliable pacific northwest journalist said the talks between the LA schools and the Big Ten were initiated by Fox.

The ACC has played its hand as well as a basketball-centric conference could. It proactively knifed the Big East to strengthen its football side before TV rights deals went through the roof. It practiced safety in numbers by adding Pitt and Syracuse. It even managed to get Notre Dame to play in a conference for a year. It may prove to be a zombie, already dead but still shambling along until 2036, but that’s 14 years longer as a true power league than the Pac-12 and Big 12 are staring at right now.

But one way or another, it seems inevitable that the SEC and Big Ten will split the ACC’s premier programs as soon as the lawyers give them the green light. In the meantime, maybe the SEC tries to match the B1G’s national scope and takes a preemptive shot at Washington and Oregon. Hey, USC is now in a conference with Maryland and Rutgers. All bets are off.

The only thing I will definitively rule out is the SEC remaining at 16 teams forever. We already now have two superconferences in college athletics. The only question left is how super they end up being.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2