At every high school across the nation, without exception, there’s that one guy that all the other guys envy.
He’s the handsome, square-jawed jock who just so happens to also be the school’s adored quarterback, as well as president and valedictorian of his class.
At prom he is almost certain to be crowned king. And, when it comes to a date, he can have the hand of any girl he so chooses.
All the girls—from the weirdo to the tomboy to the cheerleading captain—swoon at his mere passing presence in the hall.
“Oh, my God,” screams the brace-faced girl with one too many cats and an allergy to almost everything—except cats.
“Did he look at me?!”
No. He didn’t look at you. He wouldn’t look at you.
As college football flirts with seismic change, Mike Slive, commissioner of the SEC, is that guy. And, when it comes to expansion, he can have the hand of any program he so chooses.
Googly-eyed Texas A&M has been throwing its panties at Slive and the SEC for months. And, having sent the Big 12 its Dear John letter, the Aggies are set to get their guy as soon as next week.
The Aggies in the SEC makes sense. And it is a brilliant move for both parties.
Now the SEC can tout its Texas footprint in TV contract re-negotiations, breathe new life into the old Texas A&M-LSU rivalry and establish new ones.
Now the Aggies can outgrow the shadow of the Longhorns, something only a move to the SEC could allow them to do.
And as Texas A&M transitions to the SEC, all of college football wonders the same thing: Who is lucky fourteen?
Adding the Aggies leaves the SEC with thirteen teams.
Symmetry among its divisions will require the SEC to at some point invite one or three other programs.
To be clear, the question is not who wants an SEC invitation. Everyone does.
Rather, the question is who does Mike Slive deem worthy.
Slive isn’t looking to get to fourteen or sixteen just for the sake of getting to fourteen or sixteen. Invitees must bring something to the table and expand the SEC pie.
Accordingly, for Slive, expansion is largely about entering a new media market. But that’s not all it’s about.
Slive wants a program that won’t dilute the perception of the SEC’s power, a program whose fans are wildly passionate about football the way Auburn and Florida fans are—a program that shares the SEC’s culture.
And, if Slive is looking to raise the perception of SEC academics, he may look to add a program that is, as Texas A&M is, a member of the Association of American Universities. It is doubtful, though, that AAU membership is as critical as an expansion criteria for the SEC as it would be for the ACC or Big Ten.
In any case, of the SEC’s conference expansion criteria, increasing the league’s footprint is tantamount. And many expansion candidates—Duke, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, NC State, Oklahoma, Virginia, Virginia Tech and West Virginia—do just that.
But not all are its best options. And not all are without complications.
Oklahoma, for example, culturally-akin and ever-dominant, is probably the program the SEC desires most. But bigwigs in the Oklahoma legislature will frown upon the idea of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State being affiliated with different conferences.
If Slive must invite Oklahoma’s little brother to get Oklahoma, the Sooners are far less desirable. Scratch them off the list.
Similarly, Duke and North Carolina are a package deal, with North Carolina being to the SEC the more desirable of the two.
However, unlike Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, the Duke-North Carolina package adds value to the SEC. It gives the SEC, a league not known for academics, the two most elite schools in the South—Vanderbilt and Duke—and brings to the SEC one of the greatest rivalries in all of college sports, albeit one rooted in basketball.
But that these are basketball schools is not the prevailing problem—if in December North Carolina were to hire a guy like Gus Malzahn, the Tarheels could very well be playing like an SEC football team in a year or two.
Rather, the problem is that Duke and North Carolina are inextricably intertwined with the ACC.
It would be difficult for even the all-powerful Mike Slive himself to lure these schools away from the ACC.
Passive about conference expansion, it remains to be seen whether ACC Commissioner John Swofford will be aggressive about conference retention, though it appears we will soon find out.
It’s difficult to imagine that Swofford will commit the malpractice of allowing Duke and North Carolina—the collective face of the ACC—to bolt for the SEC.
Scratch them off the list.
Maryland, Missouri and Virginia offer new television markets, but not much else. And they don’t fit culturally. Scratch them off the list.
That leaves NC State, Virginia Tech and West Virginia as schools that expand the SEC’s footprint, fit culturally and present few hurdles to inclusion.
It’s easy to imagine NC State catching Aggie-itis.
In the way that Texas A&M stands—or stood—in the shadow of Texas, NC State stands in the shadow Duke and North Carolina. Driven by a desire to emerge from that shadow, don’t be surprised if NC State starts showing the SEC a little leg.
And while NC State wouldn’t be a bad fit for the SEC, scratch them off the list. Better options are out there.
Virginia Tech, a solid program with a rabid fanbase, would bring with it the Washington, DC television market, one of the nation’s largest.
West Virginia is a spot-on cultural fit. And, although it offers a smaller media market, West Virginia is expected to be competitive under Dana Holgorsen and makes more sense in the SEC than NC State does.
Virginia Tech and West Virginia make the cut.
Clemson, Florida State and Louisville don’t offer new media markets. But that hardly precludes them from receiving an invitation.
All fit culturally. But Florida State and Louisville have the most to offer.
Make no mistake: Florida State is an SEC school lost in the ACC.
It is a brand-name football program that, despite its lost decade, continues to have the ability to attract viewers across the nation.
Adding Florida State to the SEC brings a whole new set of marquee matchups each year—for example, Florida State versus Georgia and Florida State versus Tennessee, among others—and intensifies tenfold the already-heated Florida-Florida State rivalry by making it an intra-conference one.
Also, with the resurgence in Tallahassee, adding the Seminoles cedes none of the SEC’s college football dominance and gives the SEC yet another national title contender.
Little has been said about Louisville joining the SEC—but the Cardinals have plenty to offer.
Louisville has a big athletic budget and an SEC culture. It has a rising football program under Charlie Strong, a fierce rivalry with Kentucky and a storied basketball program that would give the SEC another contender in March.
Florida State and Louisville join Virginia Tech and West Virginia on the short-list. One of these programs is the lucky fourteen.
And, if I was Slive, the powerhouse program in Tallahassee would be it.
But there’s a problem.
According to Section IV-5 of the ACC bylaws, at this point, no ACC member may join another league until 2013, as August 15, 2011 was the deadline to withdraw and join another league in 2012.
If Slive intends to create a super-conference, the solution is easy—invite Florida State, Virginia Tech and West Virginia now. Welcome West Virginia in 2012, assuming Big East bylaws permit, and wait until 2013 to welcome Florida State and Virginia Tech.
But, if Slive intends to stop at fourteen, unless he can circumvent Section IV-5 without committing tortious interference, he should patiently wait to take the hand of Florida State, the prettiest girl in the whole school.
And no matter if he invites Florida State, Virginia Tech, West Virginia or all three, in the end, the SEC will still feel like the SEC.
And preserving and strengthening the SEC brand is what being Mike Slive—the king of college football—is all about.
NOTE: In a future post, the author will discuss how the ACC can be saved. Follow the author on Twitter at @JRC_.