With college football expansion starting to heat up for what will be the third major time in three years, the SEC will once again be forced to look into taking over more territory. Over the past two offseasons, the nation has watched as Utah and Colorado jumped to the Pac-12, Nebraska set up shop in the Big Ten, Texas A&M and Missouri settled into the SEC, and Syracuse and Pitt moved over to the ACC.
Each of these realignments spawned hundreds upon thousands of scenarios for each conference. Many included the collapse of the Big 12 and Big East while others predicted Notre Dame would finally find a permanent home. Many writers and analysts spoke in awe or fear of an eventuality they called "super-conferences" where the four major leagues would host 16 programs each.
For average SEC fans, however, most of this is moot. Their conference, unlike many others, is stable. Of the many leagues out there, one could argue that the Southeastern Conference is the most solid of them all, standing at least on even ground with the Big Ten and Pac-12.
For now, the SEC will remain at 14 universities as Texas A&M and Missouri make the "official" move over the conference during mid-summer. No program is even considering looking outside the league and any other conference would be foolish to believe that asking would get them anywhere; the SEC is a rock.
Point is, the only changes the SEC could be making in the near future would be adding two more teams. The idea of creating a 16-program "mega-conference" isn't all that bad when one considers the positives such as more TV markets for additional revenue, top-notch competition and even fertile recruiting grounds for in-house universities.
As many have heard by this point, TCU Athletic Director Chris Del Conte is quoted having said that ACC schools Florida State, Miami and Clemson all want into the once-thought-dead Big 12. Reports have continued to surface that Georgia Tech also is looking for a way out of their long-time home.
So what does this mean for the SEC and its expansion possibilities? When it comes down to it, a lot actually.
Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive has been successful so far with all this "expansion" nonsense by pushing the SEC brand deep into the heart of Texas and up into the farthest reaches of Missouri and the southern parts of the Midwestern United States.
The next step in his "master" plan, if you will, would be to increase the league's presence on the Atlantic edge by moving up the Eastern seaboard. For the SEC, that would include snaring universities in North Carolina and Virginia, if possible.
When one looks at the state of Virginia, the obvious choice is most certainly Virginia Tech. Its football program has been extremely successful since joining the ACC, attending multiple BCS bowls and winning a plethora of conference titles.
The Hokies also have many a reason to join the storied ranks of the SEC, and I firmly believe that the move is an eventuality rather than just a possibility.
Examining Mike Slive and his work on expansion so far, however, I would surprised if he decided to pass over the state of North Carolina in lieu of some other Eastern seaboard program.
The state is not only a geographic fit, but it also provides some top-notch TV markets, fertile recruiting grounds and better-than-decent programs in both the major sports.
As most know, money seems to be the driving force in most realignment moves. Adding North Carolina to the SEC's footprint would give the league access to two valuable, top-30 markets in No. 24 Charlotte and No. 27 Raleigh-Durham.
Before now, I was convinced that the ACC was extremely solid, especially with its conference realignment "victory" over the Big East still fresh in everyone's mind. Syracuse and Pitt, however, don't seem to be enough for FSU, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Miami as they have seemingly begun searching for a new home.
This development should force the SEC to create a new timetable on its expansion plans up the Eastern seaboard. If and when the ACC starts to crumble, most of the top programs will be looking for anyway out, and for two of them, the SEC is their answer.
Assuming that Virginia Tech and a North Carolina school are the targets, which they should be, Commissioner Slive will have a few options when looking into the sister state of South Carolina.
Unfortunately, the SEC will only be able to take one university from North Carolina. Exceeding 16 teams would be going much too far beyond the conference's limits. Furthermore, only one school would be necessary to secure the TV markets and recruiting grounds in the area.
So which program should get the nod?
Easily one of the most recognizable national brands due to their fantastic basketball program, the Blue Devils barely scrape by on the gridiron. In the SEC, Duke would essentially become another Vanderbilt as this ACC bottom-feeder would become the lowest of low in the league.
However, one of the largest arguments for Duke getting in would be its academic prestige. Going off this year's US News & World Report university rankings, the Blue Devils come in at No. 10 nationally. Essentially, that would have made it the highest ranked academic institution in the SEC as they would overtake No. 17 Vanderbilt. Duke also classifies as an AAU member just as Texas A&M and Missouri did.
While the Commodores might not like losing their title as the "smartest" in the conference, at least that would make this Eastern division face-off an interesting one every single season.
Other than academics, however, the only other deal Duke has going for them is Mike Krzyzewski and the top-notch basketball program. In the SEC, the Blue Devils would easily evolve into a great rival for Kentucky on the hardwood. However, considering the sport is second-tier to a money-maker like football, this is a tough argument to hold any clout.
North Carolina State
Near the beginning of last football season, there was a great piece on why the Wolfpack would make an excellent fit for the SEC. As far as North Carolina universities go, however, NC State has taken a dip in brand recognition and power on the field and in the arena.
If the SEC were to pull in the Wolfpack, however, all of that would change. NC State has been steadily improving its football program the past few years as it finished last season 8-5 with a bowl victory over Louisville. Overall, the Wolfpack do own the most potent gridiron threat in the state of North Carolina.
On the basketball court, North Carolina State has finally emerged as a top-notch power once again. Falling from the elite decades ago, their return to the Sweet 16 this past NCAA tournament has many analysts talking. If the Wolfpack were to enter into the SEC, they would immediately become one of the best basketball programs in the conference.
Overall, North Carolina State is also the most detached of the other two major universities in the state. Duke and UNC are almost joined at the hip, making the task of bringing in just one all the more difficult. The Wolfpack, however, have no "big" rivalries to hold onto, allowing Slive to have a higher chance at convincing them to move over.
The lone negative for NC State's admission to the league, however, is most certainly academics. One of the largest positives in allowing both Texas A&M and Missouri into the SEC was how strong each was institutionally as both held onto spots in the esteemed AAU. The Wolfpack sit as No. 101 on the US News & World Report university rankings and are not members of the AAU.
Analyzing the two entries above, one might notice that while Duke is strong academically, they fall short on the gridiron and that NC State is pretty much the exact opposite.
The Tar Heels, however, are the best of both worlds.
UNC comes in as the No. 29 school nationally according to the US News & World Report National University Rankings. This would place them just behind Vanderbilt but in front of Texas A&M and Florida in the conference rankings. Furthermore, it is an AAU member, giving UNC the advantage over NC State and essentially tying it with Duke.
On the gridiron, North Carolina is no powerhouse, but it is also no pushover. After a tough finish last season, the Tar Heels have gone out and hired former Southern Miss Head Coach Larry Fedora, showing their desire to compete with the best in their league. UNC would not become another Vanderbilt should it enter the SEC as its recruiting would improve massively, boosting it to the "Ole Miss/Kentucky" tier at the least.
Of the three schools, none of them have the advantage on the hardwood as each would come into the SEC as one of the best. North Carolina certainly has just as much or more brand recognition as Duke, and NC State is definitely on the rise.
However, just like the other North Carolina universities, there is still one downside to bringing in the Tar Heels. UNC and Duke, as I said before, are basically attached at the hip. Owning the best basketball rivalry in the country as well as one of the best in-state competitions overall, breaking up the Tar Heels and Blue Devils would be one of Mike Slive's most difficult tasks so far in his career.
Which North Carolina Program Should Get the SEC Invite?
When it comes down to it, the University of North Carolina has all the right pieces to fit into the SEC as a true member. The Tar Heels' decent football program wouldn't threaten any of the "big" players in the conference while their strong academic presence would raise the league's overall ranking on a national basis and appease any critics of the league's current academic status.
Furthermore, UNC's top-notch basketball program would provide Kentucky, Florida and Vanderbilt another competing rival on the hardwood, increasing the SEC's national presence in the sport.
SEC Commissioner Mike Slive would be foolish to overlook the state of North Carolina. With the ACC starting to look like the new "soon-to-be-dead" league, bringing in the TV markets and fertile recruiting grounds from this southern state would be a huge step in the right direction for the SEC.
As the Florida State/Clemson/Miami/Georgia Tech rumors continue to circulate and expand, the time has come for the SEC to make its move on Virginia Tech and one of the North Carolina universities (UNC if Slive uses my logic).
There is no time more ripe for another round of conference expansion.