Last Saturday, No. 1 LSU beat No. 2 Alabama, 9-6, in overtime, in a throwback game that centered on defense, kicking game and field positions, the foundation on which Southeastern Conference football was built.
On Sunday, the SEC announced its 14th member, the University of Missouri, is joining the league effective the 2012-13 school year as will previously announced Texas A&M. It means the cat family of nicknames in the SEC – three Tigers (Auburn, LSU and Missouri) and a Wildcat (Kentucky) – now owns a 4-2 lead over the Dog family (Georgia and Mississippi State Bulldogs).
On Monday, Ole Miss announced it would not be retaining Houston Nutt as football coach after this season. His departure means that this league is assured of having at least one coaching change for the 38th time in the last 4 seasons.
Yep, it has been pretty much a typical week in the SEC where something is always going, where things change almost week-to-week.
Some people may think that is a sign of instability.
Me? I think it’s what makes this league so good and so intriguing. It’s the ability to never be satisfied with status quo. Because when that happens, you stop growing, stop progressing and you fall into the pack with everybody else.
For the longest time, everyone down here in the sunny South thought the SEC was a pretty good league when it was just 10 teams before the conference expanded to 12 schools and split into two six-team divisions in 1992.
But when you look at the pre-12 team SEC days compared to post-expansion, especially in men’s sports, there are some astonishing statistics such as:
Football: The SEC has 20 national championships. Prior to expansion, six different teams won 11 national championships over a 30-year period. In the 19 years post-expansion, five teams have won nine national titles.
Basketball: The SEC has 10 national championships. Prior to expansion, Kentucky won all five national titles. Post-expansion, three teams have won the other five national championships.
Baseball: The SEC has won nine national championships. Prior to expansion, the league won titles twice in 1990 and 1991 by Georgia and LSU. Post-expansion, LSU and South Carolina won the other seven titles, with Carolina winning in back-to-back years in 2010 and this past June.
And then consider that since expansion, 10 of the SEC’s 12 teams (all but Kentucky and Ole Miss) has reached the College World Series a total of 37 times. In the last five years, seven SEC teams have made it to the CWS.
Track and field: The SEC never won a men’s national indoor track and field championship prior to expansion. Since expansion, it has won 16 national indoor titles (11 by Arkansas, 2 each by Florida and LSU, and one by Tennessee) and 13 of the league’s all-time 18 outdoor national championships (11 by Arkansas, 1 each by LSU and Tennessee).
Former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, who oversaw the league’s expansion to 12 teams with the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina, recalls all the doomsday forecasts that expansion would hurt the league, especially playing an eight-game conference football schedule and adding a league championship game.
“Most of the media and most of our football coaches never thought we’d win another national championship,” Kramer says. “Since we’d never played an eight-game schedule and a conference championship game, nobody could ever play that schedule and qualify to play for the national championship.
“Everybody thought it was the death knell of the conference as far as its national rankings are concerned. Well, the exact opposite has happened. That very first year of expansion, Alabama won the national championship (the SEC’s first national football championship since Georgia in 1980). As it has turned out, it has raised the level of competition in our league. I think expansion was an element in that occurring.
“And look Arkansas raised the level of basketball significantly early on (with a national championship in 1994 and a loss in the national finals in 1995). South Carolina raised the level of baseball. You may get that with Missouri, because Missouri has had very good basketball.”
While everyone talks about the TV markets that Texas A&M and Missouri bring to the SEC, Kramer believes the Aggies and the Tigers were chosen for many of the same reasons that the conference invited the Razorbacks and the Gamecocks back in ’92.
“When our presidents began looking at schools to join the conference, they wanted programs with fully well-rounded men’s and women’s athletic programs,” Kramer says. “It wasn’t just looking at schools that had strong football and basketball schools.
“We never looked at Arkansas and South Carolina from a strong television strongpoint. If you look at Fayetteville, Ark., and Columbia, S.C., they didn’t bring an enormous number of TV sets. But the schools brought competitive programs that created new rivalries which made our TV packages more attractive.”
That’s why CBS originally climbed on the SEC train in 1994 and ESPN in 1999.
Expansion created such new annual rivalries such as border wars to open and close the SEC football season, battles that have true impact on the divisional races such as Georgia-South Carolina in September and Arkansas-LSU in the last game of the regular season in November.
“Florida and Tennessee never played football on a regular basis until expansion put them in the Eastern Division together,” Kramer says. “Alabama-LSU has played more frequently being in the Western Division together. South Carolina and Florida has developed a great rivalry in the East. Those have become marquee television properties.
“I think something like that will happen again with this latest expansion. It will bring that type of excitement. Texas A&M vs. Arkansas, and Texas A&M vs. LSU should be great games. Missouri brings a new flavor to the East, whether Missouri-Georgia, Missouri-Florida, Missouri-Tennessee. Missouri has never played Tennessee in football, so now they’ll play each other.
“What expansion does is create more variation in your schedule, makes it more attractive to your fans. And it does strengthen your league. People thought we were a great 10-team league, but within a year or two after we expanded to 12 teams, you heard people talk very little about that great 10-team league.
“It surprised me back then how quickly fans adapted to having two divisions for the first time, the East and the West. I’m sure they’ll adapt just as fast to now having 14 teams. This expansion will be very exciting to the conference.”
Agreed. New blood always makes a conference’s DNA more interesting. This football season is far from being over, but I’m looking forward to having Mizzou and the Aggies in the mix already.