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On The Aggies Heading For The SEC

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Texas A&M would alter the future of college football in Texas by choosing a different route from the University of Texas. Here are several factors that will determine the success of the split, most of which supporters of the two schools will interpret differently., A&M's Rivals affiliate, is suggesting that the school has decided to head to the Southeastern Conference. At the same time, Chris Level tweets that the Pac-10 is looking to Kansas to replace them:

That flight to KC is scheduled to leave Austin at 8:10pm tonight and land at 9:48pm assuming they leave on time. What a day for Larry Scott.

First off, anyone who comments about the Aggies and Longhorns must state any allegiances, so let me say that while I did not attend either school, I root for Texas when the two play. I am also one who will root for the Texas schools as a group. So that is out of the way.

Taking this latest news for what it is, apparent likelihood, not the inevitable, I am quite intrigued with the landscape that this would create. Several uncertainties immediately arise. Some of those are already being argued about on message boards and next to coffee machines; some haven't really been explored.

The first issue that came to mind for me when A&M began talking seriously about heading east was recruiting. Many are using Arkansas as a model for what might happen to the Aggies if they leave their state rivals and join the SEC, but recruiting is the key difference in that analogy. When Arkansas left, they shut off a key to their greatest talent pipeline -- they stopped playing in Texas. When there are strong alternatives like Texas, A&M and suddenly Oklahoma playing near home on a weekly basis and you aren't, you are going to struggle to bring in more than a trickle of top players from the vast talent hotbed. Oklahoma saw the opposite. Its great football tradition meant more when the school joined a division with four Texas schools and one other from Oklahoma.

The Aggies don't have that problem. Over half of their games will still be right in the middle of Southeast Texas. Their forays into Louisiana, Alabama and Arkansas will be intriguing adventures, not permanent exile from their players' families. As most Aggies will tell you, their average conference road trip will be a good deal closer than Arizona, Kansas, Colorado or certainly the Pacific Coast. 

One of A&M's big gambles in this move is the belief that playing the top competition of the SEC, despite potentially losing the rivalry on which its very fight song is based, will draw talent back to the school. Randy Galloway doesn't think that it will, at least long term:

OK, let's talk next about recruiting, because many Aggies have a theory that by separating from UT, it can open up a whole new campaign for the Aggies, such as:

Recruits can be sold on the SEC as a neighborly fit while the Longhorns have to peddle the Pac-Whatever Conference.

There's some truth there. Maybe an advantage happens initially. But in the long run, no way. Because if the Aggies join up, the entire SEC gets a recruiting foothold in Texas that it doesn't now have.

An LSU will cherry-pick, an Arkansas gets a few, but for the most part, the SEC is rather light on prized Lone Star State players. You think Nick Saban doesn't want to change that?

So any advantage the Aggies might initially enjoy, in the long run their biggest competition for recruits who like the SEC will be, yes, other SEC schools.

Galloway hits the key recruiting point for me as a fan of Texas schools:

The Aggies are re-opening the doors back into Texas for key border states. LSU has been strong in recent years without playing regularly in Texas based on the strength of their program, but with a coach who has Texas connections they already strafe East Texas and periodically raid the rest of the state -- 15 members of its roster are from Texas, including top recruits like Terrence Toliver, Craig Loston and Russell Sheppard. Make no mistake, though, this will help LSU recruiting at the expense of A&M and other Texas schools.

It's a major boon for Arkansas. We aren't back to the Frank Broyles days, since Arkansas will still not have the opportunity to play Texas, who Broyles regarded as their true rival:

"We don't have a rivalry," Broyles said.

Not like you had with Texas, anyway.

"Oh," he said, smiling, "did we ever."

But they're back, baby. They will have that toll tag charged up for their trips to the Death Star, and they will have the pleasure of informing moms once more that they can see their boys play at least one game near home, to go with not too distant trips north and east. The same will go for those other SEC schools who romped around the state before the Big 12, Bob Stoops and Mack Brown. They will be players in Texas once more.

It's one of those chicken/egg questions for Texas A&M. The Aggies can't win without attracting better players than they have for the past decade or so, but without that hook of Texas weekend, they had better be successful in the SEC if they want to bring in players. Fourth place in the SEC West doesn't do any more for you than fourth place in the Big 12 South. Getting out from the shadows of Brown and Stoops to join less intimate rivals seems to feel right to many Aggies. But they are going to have to beat Texas and Oklahoma for players and keep those schools to the east out of Texas recruiting while inviting them in for games. That is a tall order.

There hasn't been as much discussion about the recruiting impact on Texas. DeLoss Dodds and many Texas alums seem to think that A&M will waste away once they are extracted from UT's hip. Texas had better hope that they do, because everything else about this could hurt Texas recruiting. Losing the Aggies rivalry can't help their sales pitch, and someone significant in the state (sorry TCU) now has something good to offer that is distinctly different from the Texas football experience.

For the past century, the question has generally been on which side of the multifaceted state civil war a kid wanted to fight. For the first time, the question will be, do I even want to fight in that battle or do I want to join another one? Meanwhile, what more does Texas have to offer? Seven of their games will be against folks they've been playing, with more frequent trips to Boulder and Lawrence, and then new rivalries with Arizona schools. Big whoop. Games against USC, UCLA, Stanford and Oregon will be infrequent. Texas' main recruiting slogan: "We Are Texas" will continue to be its selling point. Will that be enough to withstand additional options for recruits?

While recruiting is king, here are the other issues that pique my curiosity:

Who makes the most TV money? The way things currently seem to be sorting out, the Big Ten has added Nebraska and whatever interest they draw from places like Kansas City, but they did not break into additional major markets. The Pac-10/16 is adding the Texas/Tech/OU portions of the Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio markets, along with Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Denver, Wichita and whatever portion of Kansas City that Kansas attracts. They will be big players, but the SEC still figures to be a monster in the TV game once the realignment dust settles. A&M folks had to be tired of hearing Texas dream about what an individual TV contract could earn them, and joining the SEC would seem to be the best way to counter this move. At the same time, joining the Pac-10 could cramp Texas' plans for their own TV network, sending us back to a conference vs. conference battle.  

Does it really matter whether your conference mates are strong academically? The reality is that the answer isn't confined to athletics. Texas' motivation to join with schools like Cal, UCLA and Stanford is generated by academics and academic reputation, not any real benefit gained in the athletic department. A&M will have to contend with schools who are not at their level academically and will not require recruits to achieve the same scores. Out-recruiting Texas, LSU, Oklahoma and Arkansas for top players while fighting that uphill battle is not an easy task.

What changes for Texas Tech? Once Mike Leach was ousted at Tech, most of us expected the natural order to gradually be restored, for A&M to once again be the second strongest football program in the state while TCU fades a bit and Tech returns to 7-4/6-5 land. A&M has not handled its finances well, but it still has terrific resources, a powerful alumni base, and top notch facilities. Those factors will not change, but what can happen for Tech, as a result of them being the last Texas school to hang with UT through two conference shifts, is the opportunity to take advantage of that association. If A&M's gamble does not pay off, if it is overwhelmed by the elite competition while Tech sustains itself as a ranked program year after year, it could grow a perception, at least in some circles, as the opportunity to go and win, to play Texas, and possibly beat the Longhorns. The road to nine-plus wins will be easier than A&M's.

Is there a possibility that everyone wins? If we rewind a few years and reverse these events, this state will be in a similar situation to Florida before the current conference alignments. Back when Miami, Florida State and Florida took their turns dominating college football for a couple of decades, they all played in different conferences. They played each other, but they weren't bunched together in the same division with only one shot at a conference championship looming. There are certainly many factors at work, but when Miami and Florida State joined, both receded, while Florida sat alone and continued to compete for and win national championships. 

Texas and Oklahoma certainly flourished in this sort of close rivalry, but, as discussed, A&M suspects that as the odd man out, they could never gain their equal footing. How many recruits are going to step out on a ledge and believe that they will take down both giants and win conferences? On a competitive level, not much will change for the Red River Rivals. They have to beat one another, and they will see a comparable division competition, with OSU and Tech joining them, and four solid but beatable programs joining their division. Like the state of Florida, there are plenty of players in Texas to sustain two or more elite programs, but the key achievement of those Florida schools -- closing those borders to out-of-state recruiters -- appears to be nearly impossible.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.