BATON ROUGE, La. — It looks like bigger does mean better in the competitive Southeastern Conference – not just in terms of television ratings, but on the field as well.
When Texas A&M and Missouri began SEC play a season ago, few doubted the addition of the two schools would bring more television viewers to the league’s games from Texas and Midwest. Still, there were questions about whether adding a pair of Big 12 teams would dilute the quality on the field in the mighty SEC, winner of seven straight football national titles.
Just last weekend, the Aggies and their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Johnny Manziel, pulled out a thriller at Mississippi, while unbeaten Missouri did what No. 6 LSU could not: upended Georgia in Athens. Halfway through the 2013 season, the Aggies and the newest Tigers to join the SEC have one loss between them: A&M’s one-score loss to No. 1 and two-time defending national champion Alabama.
“It made our league better,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said when asked about the results of expansion on the field.
Some of those who represent the SEC’s traditional powers have been a bit surprised by the quick ascension of the newcomers in the league standings.
“I’m shocked, but then again, I’m not,” Tennessee running back Rajion Neal said. “Those have been some pretty good teams. I can remember times where Texas A&M were making their strides and I can remember Missouri was in the top 10.”
Others saw it coming.
“It doesn’t shock me at all,” said Florida coach Will Muschamp, who was familiar with both former Big 12 programs from his time as a defensive coordinator at Texas.
South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier said he always thought Missouri and Texas A&M had “outstanding traditions at their places.”
Spurrier said he had no doubt Missouri now has its “sights on playing for the championship in Atlanta,” and that the Aggies’ Manziel is “the toast of the league.”
Added LSU coach Les Miles: “Both Texas A&M and Missouri are much improved from when I was in the Big 12 at Oklahoma State.”
The promise of greater TV ratings seems to be playing out as predicted. A few weeks ago, CBS announced its broadcast of No. 1 Alabama at then-No. 6 Texas A&M earned the highest ratings for a CBS regular season college football game in 23 years.
Next year, the conference launches the SEC Network, which is expected to be picked up by cable providers in every team’s market – meaning millions more viewers which the network might not have had if not for expansion into the states of Texas and Missouri.
Expansion did not come without some logistical concerns. Saban said he’s still concerned about how scheduling will work out. Vanderbilt Athletic Director David Williams said the new travel itineraries will take some getting used to for the teams and fans.
“There’s always things that you sort of have to get over the hump and you know adding two more teams, there were a lot of logistic problems,” Williams said. “But all of the other stuff is great. Two outstanding universities. They’ve brought a lot of excitement, a lot of fans to the SEC, good teams. So yeah, I think the expansion has worked real well.”
If travel has become more onerous for fans, it hasn’t really shown up in terms of attendance. If anything, Manziel’s star power has provided an attendance boost in every stadium the Aggies have visited.
In 2011, the last season before expansion, SEC stadiums were at 95.8 percent capacity. In 2012, that figure rose to 97.4. So far this season, it’s at 98.7.
Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze has been dealt a pair of home losses by A&M, falling victim to remarkable performances by Manziel in both. He hasn’t faced Missouri yet, but will host Gary Pinkel’s Tigers on Nov. 23.
“Competition-wise, they both have added something to our conference,” Freeze said. “It gives us another market and expands the financial benefits that we all reap.
“The only negative I have is that you just don’t get to see the other half of the league enough,” Freeze added. “I haven’t seen any negative other than that and that’s just a personal negative. Probably everyone doesn’t share that opinion.”