College Football's A Changing, Again. What Should Texas and Texas A&M Do?
We've all read of the 5 actual useful reports on Texas and OU bailing on the Big 12 they created to join the SEC, and the 673 articles written on those 5 reports. And I have to tell you, as a third generation Aggie and Class of '98, I'm excited. Not just to play Texas again, but for what's coming and the implications.
So what's been changing? Three things. 1. Recruiting moved from regional and fairly distributed business to a Top tier winner take all arms race with the top recruits increasingly concentrated in the top schools - even though top tier recruits are ever more heavily concentrated in a few regions. Check out the blue chip ratio theory, it's real. 2. Ever increasing conference money deals anchoring revenues in have and have nots, that has shored up weaker P5 schools and underpaid the top tier P5 schools. 3. A group of G5 schools (Cincinnati, UCF, Boise State, etc come to mind), proving that despite that, platforms outside of the top tier of recruiting and money capable of competing with top 50 P5 schools (if not that top tier), can be built anywhere.
And what's about to change? A real college playoff, not this four team fake version, that will finally break the hybrid bowl structure permanently. NIL added to the transfer portal that's about to shift power to top tier recruits, and a weakened NCAA (all frankly along time in coming).
What Should the SEC Do?
If you are the SEC, you do this deal because you see college football is changing. Why? Because a chance to grab two of the top 5 non SEC media properties in the country with nationwide brands on the cheap, in adjacent territories with historic rivalries is just too rich to pass up, and you cement the SEC as the best conference and the best media property permanently - anchoring advantages in the only things that matter for success recruiting and money.
The only reason you don't do this deal is if you believe the status quo remains, and the SEC frankly doesn't need the to give a weakened playoff era Texas and OU a leg up in extra recruiting and money competition. But that's not the case. In fact, you do this deal fast before Texas and OU find some guts.
What Should Texas and OU Do?
If you are Texas and OU, you've got several legit choices. You don't have to leave the Big 12. You could show leadership, or guts (but you won't). In the leadership scenario, there are two really appealing options, and both are power moves.
First you grow. And make the first National Conference. Steal a march and turn the long term middle of country geographic disadvantage into an powerful tool in an era with a weakened NCAA, a weak Pac 12, an unbalanced ACC with a bad TV contract, a dozen schools in the G5 begging for a shot, and a playoff, NIL, transfer portal and new Big 12 contract coming in a couple years. You position the Big 12 to win it all. I'd go after every major media market, every national brand, and every key up and coming G5 program across the country, and expand to at least 16 if not 24, and create product that is just plain awesome. My targets? They'd include Notre Dame, UH, UCF or Florida State or Miami, Boise State, UCLA or USC, Stanford, BYU or Utah, Michigan, Cincinnati, Rutgers, Louisiana, Georgia Tech, North Carolina. Get Big 12 product in every key market, and get the Texas and OU brands conference games where the eyeballs and recruits are. Bet that the world just changed, and leave the other 4 Power 5 SEC, Big 10, ACC and Pac 12 conferences relegated to regional status, with Big 12 expanding in every direction and playing fun and meaningful games in their backyards. I'd force a radical realignment as the only far flung P5 program easily capable of expanding as a coast to coast force. Would they join? Absolutely. A Big 12 so constructed is a better spot for dozens of schools in a shaky world where they all see change coming.
Alternately, you spin out. Go independent, and support others like OU, BYU, USC, Clemson, UCF, etc to do the same. In a new world order, double down on the college and player brands, betting a playoff system and rivalry games will create new financial, branding and recruiting opportunities, and simply break the archaic conference and bowl system entirely. Texas and OU are uniquely positioned to do it. And being locked into a middle of America TV market is not exactly sound strategic positioning. And added to Notre Dame, having 3 Tier 1 national brands playing a national schedule literally rewrites the ESPN and Fox playbook in one move, and puts huge dollars in the Texas and OU coffers as well as get access to games in markets that matter. Who do you go after to play? Well, same strategy. Notre Dame, Boston College, Cincinnati, UCF, Louisiana. Go where the good teams, big markets, and recruits are. Create must watch TV and meaningful games. A couple of losses in the Big 12 knocks you out of a playoff. A couple of losses in a well designed independent schedule? Not so much.
You could jump to the Big 10 and Pac 12. Or split, Texas and Texas Tech to Pac 12 and OU and OSU to the Big 10, and keep your Red River rivalry games. Solid moves, but certainly not gamechangers.
But you will do one of them, jump to get into the SEC, Big 10 or Pac 12 and leave the leadership to others, which is what you've historically done. It's not a bad move, it's a power move for the SEC, it's the safe move for you.
What Should Texas A&M Do?
So far Texas A&M (and the eight Big 12 schools that Texas and OU are screwing), are the lone naysayers. I think like UT shortsightedly miscalculated and it played wrong a decade ago, and is doing so again, A&M is doing the same now. The world is going to change.
A&M should absolutely back this move strategically. Great for fans, great for football, great for business, great for its conference. Getting back the rivalry game with Texas, along with an annual LSU and Alabama game, cements A&M with a marquee game in all the best recruiting markets and creates must watch TV in November. That means dollars and recruits.
In addition, A&M is currently locked in a battle with Alabama, LSU, and Georgia for recruiting, and battles Texas an OU anyway. It has a special brand for recruiting, see my interview with Jimbo Fisher on the topic. And Fisher has gotten A&M solidly in the mix with top classes, but it's a multifaceted dog fight. Fisher is recruiting nationwide, and Texas is only a small part of the recruiting challenge. He should welcome another card from Texas and OU in the recruiting business that will complicate Nick Saban's and Kirby Smart's lives.
A&M did not go to the SEC to take the safe route, and it doesn't need to. It's had two top 5 finishes, recruiting nationwide, there are expanded playoffs coming, and running the table in a weak conference is no longer going to be the best option to get there. Playing the top and must see games against the best competition is (assuming Texas can again count as top competition, OU certainly does). And when the playoffs get here and with NIL, realignment and the transfer portal, that only increases.
Three times in my life under three coaches I've watched A&M teams that had the ability and a shot to win it all get cut out by the NCAA, media, and the playoff system. Twice that's happened in the SEC. 1994 RC Slocum, undefeated 10-0-1 season, beating OU, LSU, UT, but a 1 year NCAA probation combined with weak seasons by its foes left it as the third undefeated team and no shot at a championship. 2012 Kevin Sumlin. 10-2. The first freshman Heisman winner, two early SEC losses by less than a score while the team was learning to play, only team to beat the eventual national champion Alabama, destroyed Big 12 Champion OU in a consolation bowl game. Last year 2020, Jimbo Fisher, 9-1 in pandemic season, with one early loss to national champion Alabama, and lights out manhandling SEC competition down the stretch in a season where A&M should never have been passed over the playoffs for a non SEC team. Three very different teams, and nobody wanted to play those three teams in December.
Yes. A&M should want the SEC shaken up in a way that throws another monkey wrench into Alabama and Georgia recruiting, further strengthens the SEC, gives A&M the high dollar, marquee Thanksgiving rivalry game of the year in its home market in Texas, and breaks up the current SEC West minefield /softer SEC East set up in a playoff world so it will never again get cut out by media and football politics.
On a personal level, as an Aggie, am I afraid of Texas on the playing or recruiting? Not really. They've had one good coach in 40 years, and they fired him. They haven't been relevant in over a decade on the football field. I grew up watching Jackie Sherrill and RC Slocum's teams handle them. And the last time A&M met OU, it was a bloodbath, and OU has struggled to handle SEC competition when it mattered. Win lose or draw. Would love to play to Texas, and would really love to play Texas in November on a level playing field after it's had to run a real SEC gauntlet, not a Big 12 cakewalk.
Bottom line, I want my Thanksgiving game back, and it's nice to see the Texas administration finally bowing to the inevitable and unabashedly following A&M for a change.