Following Texas A&M's upset of Alabama, many predicted the SEC's demise. They were wrong.
By ZACH DILLARDFS South
Glancing through a cracked locker room door Saturday night in Tuscaloosa, there was no remorse on R. Bowen Loftin’s face. He was posing for pictures with Texas A&M’s padded stunners, grinning.
If anyone in SEC country was expecting an apology from the bow-tied university president or anyone else associated with the Aggies’ football program — after all, they had just completed the largest obstacle to the conference’s six-year streak of BCS titles — it was not forthcoming.
They did not apologize for what must feel, to SEC enthusiasts, like cruel irony.
Just three months earlier, Texas A&M was not competitive enough for the nation’s preeminent conference, predicted to simply dilute the on-field product. Now, after upsetting formerly top-ranked Alabama 29-24, the Aggies are too good. At 8-2, Texas A&M is one of eight SEC teams already bowl eligible. The problem: Every SEC team now has a loss.
Which brings up the question: Will too much competitive balance prove to be detrimental to SEC football?
It’s a strange inquiry, but relevant in the present tense. There are three bowl-eligible undefeated teams remaining nationally — Kansas State, Oregon and Notre Dame — each with a leg up in the BCS standings over No. 4 Alabama and the multitude of SEC teams behind it. If any of the two teams above the SEC remain unbeaten, the SEC will be excluded from the national title game for the first time since 2005.
But even without an SEC team competing for BCS bragging rights at this season’s end — and that’s working under the far-too-risky assumption that two of the top three teams will avoid an upset in the coming weeks — it is shortsighted to assume the conference hurt itself in conference realignment.
Loftin owes no apology; commissioner Mike Slive deserves no flack.
Texas A&M’s disruptive effect on the 2012 season only strengthens an unwavering truth: Slive’s league is set up for a future of prosperity, both on and off the field. To make a judgment based on any outcome this season is to miss the point entirely.
This faulty system of deciding a champion will soon be cast to the side for another (less faulty) system of deciding a champion. The BCS is dead following the January 2014 championship meeting. A four-team playoff will follow. And if that playoff structure were in place today, the most dominant force in college football (still the SEC) would be included — which still misses the point.
As conference commissioners met in Denver on Monday, the next step toward finalizing the new playoff system was agreed upon: Rotation of six “access” bowls for the semifinals, a national championship site bid out like the Super Bowl, one automatic bid for the “Group of Five” conferences (Big East, Conference USA, Mountain West, Sun Belt, Mid-American) and money. Lots of money. Billions. The Southeastern Conference, with its two contract bowl deals and conference depth, is smack dab in the middle of a goldmine, thanks in no small part to league’s competitive balance.
As reported by the SportsBusiness Journal, ESPN is closing in on a 12-year, $7.3 billion deal to exclusively televise the new playoff format. The SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, Atlantic Coast Conference and Pac-12 are set to receive the biggest cuts of the deal, with additional revenue coming for each team placed in the national semifinals and six major bowl games (Rose, Sugar, Orange and, reportedly, Fiesta, Chick-fil-A and Cotton).
Looking at this season’s current standings, guess which conference is in position to make out with the most lucrative portion of the deal? And Texas A&M is supposed to apologize for providing the SEC with another top-tier team?
Judging by the current BCS top-25 — an imprecise, yet decent indicator of what the new format’s selection committee could project — the SEC has six of the top nine teams in the country, Nos. 4 through 9. If the four-team playoff were selected today, Alabama and/or Georgia could be national semifinalists. In all, multiple conference teams would earn a spot in the six major bowls, and then watch the money pile up.
Because in the end that’s what conference realignment and the new playoff system and everything in else in sports, college or pro, revolves around: The bottom line.
Bringing in Texas A&M was less a move toward competitive balance than it was toward Lonestar TV sets. Loftin and the Aggies saw a way out of the Texas Longhorns’ shadow; Slive and his universities saw an additional 20-odd million eyeballs to showcase their premier gridiron product.
It just so happens that that product shook up the national championship race Saturday.
Panic struck SEC supporters in the aftermath of the Bryant-Denny stunner: The league has too many elite teams (practically impossible in the upcoming format), Texas A&M will begin to wreak havoc with hand-selected Texas recruits (false, so false) and the league’s fall from grace was set in motion by conference realignment (SEC schools are poised for a wildly prosperous future on and off the field).
The rumors of the SEC’s demise were not only exaggerated, they were fabricated entirely.
Even if R. Bowen Loftin and the Aggies were posing for photos commemorating the end of their conferences six-year rein of BCS terror — again, there’s still a lot of football left to play — the future of the SEC remains bright. And green.