About the only thing we know for sure regarding Texas and Oklahoma joining the Southeastern Conference is that it will not be good for most college football fans in the Lone Star State.
This has been a consistent thread running through every realignment since the Southwest Conference fell apart in 1996. That league was built around Texas schools playing other Texas schools, which made the rivalries intense and personal. Why even have college football if you can’t taunt a neighbor or coworker?
But as TV platforms, offering more exposure and much more money through broadcast rights deals, became the sport’s prime mover, the Southwest became a relic of a bygone time. The conference no longer made financial sense because the networks weren’t interested in its limited geographic reach and relative lack of powerhouse schools. We get that. We also get that watching Texas play Kansas State and West Virginia isn’t nearly as engaging as watching the Longhorns against Houston and SMU.
Now that the SEC’s fourteen member schools have unanimously voted to invite UT and Oklahoma to the conference, the Longhorns will be trading in the Big 12 and games against in-state opponents Texas Tech, Baylor, and TCU for Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt. Texas will also get Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Auburn, and Florida.
Participating in the best conference in college athletics will force the Longhorns to forge a new identity to remain competitive. Texas A&M hasn’t regretted joining the SEC, and Texas fans won’t either.
But the right thing for UT-Austin isn’t necessarily the right thing for Texas. If Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick really needs to form a select committee to study whether Texas bolting for the SEC is good for the state’s other schools, then he hasn’t been paying attention.
Likewise, it doesn’t take a special legislative body to determine which parties benefit from Texas’s move—the new super-conference, its member schools, and the league’s media rights partners, most notably ESPN, whose ten-year, $3 billion broadcast deal with the SEC begins in 2024.
Compared with the SEC’s fourteen schools spread across eleven states (which will soon be sixteen and twelve, with UT and Oklahoma), a regional conference like the old Southwest looks like a minor-league operation. And unfortunately for the current-day Big 12, that’s exactly what the remaining group of eight schools in the conference will be. According to the Athletic’s Stewart Mandel, 27 of the Big 12’s 30 most-watched regular-season games in 2018–2019 involved Texas and/or Oklahoma. TV consultants told Mandel that those two schools generated roughly 50 percent of the Big 12’s $253 million in television revenue in 2019 and 2020.
As Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard said in 2016: “The Big 12 exists because we have Texas and Oklahoma in the room. If we take Texas and Oklahoma out of the room, we’re the Mountain West Conference.” There’s no going back, and Texas is almost certain to follow the example of Texas A&M, which hasn’t played a former Southwest Conference rival in the last six seasons. That means so long to in-state grudge matches between UT and Baylor, Texas Tech, or TCU.
But the Big 12, stitched together after the SWC went away, was bound to implode. Its formation only delayed the inevitable, with too many of the Big 12 schools around Texas and Oklahoma incapable of pulling their own financial weight. A&M’s 2012 departure for the SEC was the first domino. At the time, Texas kicked the tires on joining the Pac-12 or ACC, but the Longhorns remained in the Big 12 because the conference allowed UT to dictate pretty much whatever terms it wanted.
We may never know why Texas and OU picked this time to leave. But discussions appear to have started around the time ESPN and the SEC agreed to a deal that will pay the conference around $300 million per season beginning in 2024. CBS currently pays the SEC $55 million per season. The SEC will be thrilled to have Texas, which led the nation with $223.9 million in 2018–2019 revenue, according to USA Today. With Texas and OU in the fold, the SEC will have seven of the top ten schools.
But this isn’t about greed or staking out long-term survival for the Longhorns. UT would be awash in money in any conference. No, it’s about the way that competing in the SEC will force the Texas football program to get its act together to avoid being run off the field by the likes of Alabama and Georgia. Well, at least it should force UT to improve. (Never underestimate how all that money, attention, and entitlement can mess things up in Austin.)
If the move works out like UT hopes, the program could find a groove similar to what Texas A&M has achieved over the past nine years. Since joining the SEC, the Aggies have established themselves as a rich and powerful national program. A&M fans will tell you that Saturday afternoons in Oxford and Tuscaloosa and Athens are better than anything they had in the Southwest Conference.
And with both the Longhorns and Aggies back in the same league, the two largest schools in Texas will resume playing each other, with a chance for their rivalry to be more intense than ever, given A&M’s initial opposition to UT joining the SEC.
If you’re concerned that playing in the SEC will make the Longhorns less likely to make the College Football Playoff or win its first national championship since 2006, you’re missing the larger point. Texas is going to the SEC to maintain its stature a national program.
Besides, UT hasn’t exactly dominated Big 12 football. Over the past eleven seasons, the Longhorns only have one top-ten finish in the Associated Press poll. Since Mack Brown was shown the door after the 2013 season, Texas’s overall record is a very average 48–39.
Many fans around the state hate this news. Maybe you liked things the way they were with the Big 12. Maybe you’re like me, and you’ll always view the Southwest Conference as the way Texas college football ought to be. But those days are never coming back, and it’s time we learn to love Baton Rouge, Knoxville, and Starkville.