Discuss 273
July 11, 2011
Will A&M trigger the next realignment explosion?
photo: Andrew Kilzer, TexAgs
A&M President Dr. R. Bowen Loftin
 
Is Texas A&M the match that will ignite the next stage of the conference realignment crisis?

I'm going to step out on a limb and say yes.

While the Big 12 has been busy pumping up the new-look, ten-team league, beneath the surface, things are a potential powder keg of activity. If the entire league eventually explodes, sending ten teams scattering to various landing points around the country, don't be surprised if the Aggies are right in the middle of the action.

The Ags entered into the new Big 12 agreement quite reluctantly, leery of the intentions of the Texas Longhorns as the league moved forward. After a cooling-off period of sorts, many within the A&M power structure feared that their "friends down in Austin," as Aggie AD Bill Byrne likes to call them, would gradually push the envelope. As they did so, the Horns would essentially be able to test the waters as it related to becoming an independent.

TexAgs In agreeing to remain in the Big 12 Conference, Byrne and the A&M brass hoped to avoid the exact agenda Texas has been pushing. {"Module":"photo","Alignment":"right","Size":"large","Caption":"In agreeing to remain in the Big 12 Conference, Byrne and the A&M brass hoped to avoid the exact agenda Texas has been pushing.","MediaItemID":7480}
In agreeing to remain in the Big 12 Conference, Byrne and the A&M brass hoped to avoid the exact agenda Texas has been pushing.

Make no mistake, the Longhorn nation is perfectly fine with the Big 12 as it's structured now. Texas is better off in a conference than they are on their own ... especially a "Big 12-2" that doesn't include a conference championship game and allows the Horns to make $300 million over the next 20 years while ESPN promotes the Texas brand on the grandest of scales.

That said, the Horns realize that the realignment crisis will rear its head again in the not-too-distant future. Between now and then the Burnt Orange brass is using their stature in the new-and-not-necessarily-improved conference to essentially see if going at it alone will be a viable future option, all the while exerting their influence with Dan Beebe and the league offices to push for (and get) virtually whatever they want.

The problem here is two-fold. First, the Horns are probably being more aggressive and less subtle than anyone at the remaining nine Big 12 schools ever imagined. The "cooling off period" essentially lasted as long as the 2010 college football season (while the Horns were struggling through a humiliating 5-7 season). Second, Texas continues to act with their own agenda in mind, with a blatant disregard for what is best for the long-term viability of the conference.

The most recent episode occurred last week, when it was announced that not one, but two Texas games would be televised on the Longhorn Network next fall. The Horns' season-opener against Rice is up first. Nothing to see there, unless you want to hear Texas talked up as a potential darkhorse national title contender as they beat up on the lowly Owls for three hours.

It's the next game - one against a Big 12 opponent to be named later - that has drawn the ire of several league coaches, athletic directors and school presidents. 

Who will it be? Texas Tech and Oklahoma State (both games in Austin) are the two games that insiders believe are the most likely candidates. One can only imagine the uproar from Lubbock or Stillwater if Red Raider or Cowboy fans must subscribe to the Longhorn network in order to watch their team play a conference football game.

Texas A&M and Oklahoma are in no danger of being the chosen game but that doesn't mean that the Aggies and Sooners are not deeply concerned with recent developments. Why? Because I'm fairly certain that the Big 12 had to sign off (at least in some capacity...and sources are looking into that now) on an agreement between Fox and ESPN in which Fox allowed ESPN to take one of its Big 12 games and move it to the Longhorn Network.

Worst-case scenario: The Big 12 gave Fox and ESPN the green-light to move the game without making member institutions aware. Either that, or A&M, Oklahoma and the rest of the league have been served notice: This is simply the tip of the iceberg and one Big 12 game will eventually (probably quickly) turn to two, three or four.

Even more important than the game itself is the general principle of what's happening: One team continues to separate itself from the rest of the league at the expense of the conference as a whole.

It's exactly what Texas A&M's decision-makers were most concerned with when they decided to remain in (and essentially save) the Big 12 Conference rather than accept an invitation to play in the SEC.

With Texas plowing ahead so quickly with little regard for league morale or stability (recent press regarding high school football games featuring at least three Longhorn commitments being played on the new network has reportedly led to several member institutions scrambling to find out whether or not such programming is even within NCAA guidelines), one has to wonder how long a program like Texas A&M is willing to stand pat.

It's of the utmost importance to note that the process is not yet begun but equally important to reiterate that A&M is still squarely in the cross-hairs of SEC commissioner Mike Slive and that the nation's No. 1 conference continues to eye expansion. If the Aggies do decide to reengage the SEC in talks and eventually made the move, the nation's football landscape would soon be unrecognizable.

While A&M had a "stand alone" offer from the SEC a year ago (based on everything I can gather, that's still the case), the fact of the matter is that it wouldn't take long for the Southeast Conference to add a 14th team (and perhaps a couple of others) to balance things out. Last summer, the league's primary goal was to convince the Aggies and Oklahoma Sooners to jump ship and join the SEC. If A&M were to make the shocking decision to leave the Big 12 behind, you can rest assured that Slive would soon be on the next plane bound for Norman.

By that point - and taking into account the fact that Texas has given every indication that they would pursue independence as soon as the realignment plates begin to shift - the Sooners would have a very hard time turning down an SEC offer (Oklahoma state politics be damned).

In addition the nation's premiere conference actually making a move to expand and adding one or two very high-profile programs, you'd have the nation's most marketable brand on the verge of becoming an independent. Throw in seven other athletic programs (including some pretty salty football programs and Kansas Jayhawk basketball) looking for a new home and you have the makings of what amounts to complete and total conference chaos.

The Aggies are the most likely match to light the fuse but they'll only do it if Texas continues to push and the consensus is that the Big 12 is a dead-end league because, no matter what anyone believes, a strong, stable Big 12 is what the A&M brass still believes is best for the program at this point in time. 

Problem is, recent events create the impression that the league is anything but.
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