Stewart Mandel lets the mask drop for a moment:
In its mad quest for television sets, the SEC, presumably intent on starting its own network, has irreparably diluted what had become the nation's premier conference. At its core, the charm of the SEC was that it really was one of the last conferences in which all 12 schools were geographically and culturally similar. The same scene we saw Saturday night in Tuscaloosa takes place in similar variations every week in Auburn, Baton Rouge, Oxford and Athens. Visiting fans make road trips in droves, because they can. Missouri, on the other hand, is an average 600-plus miles from the rest of the conference. Walk around an SEC tailgate lot or tune in to the Paul Finebaum Show and you'll quickly learn just how poorly this move is playing with the constituents.
New members Missouri and Texas A&M won't threaten the continued dominance of Alabama and LSU. They are likely the league's next South Carolina and Arkansas, the former of which took 20 years to reach its first conference title game, the latter of which made its first BCS bowl last year. But paired with the NCAA's recently approved stricter admissions standards and the SEC's own move last spring to cut down on oversigning, the league's golden era is likely drawing to a close.
Yes, Stewart, the SEC has irreparably diluted its brand because one of its fourteen members doesn’t have the same football culture as the others. Apparently, the conference could survive with two football-light members (Vandy and Kentucky) out of twelve, but three out of fourteen is just a bridge too far. If you pair Missouri with the SEC’s other new member, Texas A&M, a school that indisputably has a football culture that will mesh with the conference, then the case for dilution is really weak. It’s almost like adding bourbon and water to … bourbon and water.
Mandel’s other arguments aren’t any better. He cites the fact that SEC fans can drive to most of the other schools in the conference, but Missouri shares a border with three SEC states. If you believe that this sort of thing matters, it was a border state in the Civil War (just like Kentucky) and its flag flies at Stone Mountain. (That’s the best test of whether a state is in the South, right?) Yes, Columbia will be a hike for the teams in the East, but is it that much farther than Fayetteville, which is buried in the northwest corner of Arkansas?
And speaking of the last two additions to the SEC, we all agree that the additions of South Carolina and Arkansas were a positive for the conference, right? Neither of the new entrants have won a conference title in football. They have combined for four trips to the SEC Championship Game and have lost by double digits all four times, with three of the games being total blowouts. Moreover, while Arkansas brought a football tradition, South Carolina did not. As of 1992, South Carolina had never won a bowl game. They were 79th in all-time winning percentage, a tick over .500 and one spot behind Kansas. Missouri comes with better (although not overly impressive) credentials and they are four years removed from playing in the Big XII Championship Game for a spot in the national title game. Exposed to the competitive pressures of and revenues generated by the SEC, South Carolina has responded by hiring two brand name coaches – Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier – and enjoying the best extended period in the program’s history. The goal for Missouri doesn’t have to be competing with LSU and Alabama for national titles. Rather, there’s no reason why they can’t join Arkansas and South Carolina in the league’s middle class, with regular bowl trips and the occasional foray to the Georgia Dome when the stars align. Adding a program that slots into the middle of the SEC doesn’t dliute the brand.
As for Mandel’s last point, there’s no reason why adding Missouri would damage the SEC’s “Golden Age.” If Mandel is right that the Tigers won’t pose a major competitive threat to the elite of the conference, then how will they threaten the conference’s ability to produce national champions? How will they stop Alabama and LSU from taking advantage of the rich recruiting regions in the South? Mandel also cites the new NCAA admissions standards and the SEC’s oversigning regulations, both of which might have some impact, but they won’t change three basic realities: (1) SEC programs are rivaled only by the Big Ten in terms of generation of revenue, only the SEC programs plough the money back into their football programs whereas Big Ten programs use the money to ensure that their women’s field hockey teams have top-notch facilities; (2) SEC programs face more intense competitive pressures and therefore have a greater incentive to make moves that lead to on-field success; and (3) SEC programs sit in the most talent-rich region in the country. Thus, the SEC won’t win every national championship like it has for the past half-decade, but it will still remain above the other BCS leagues, on average.
Mandel has often opined that conference strength is cyclical. On this claim, he is totally wrong. There are structural factors at play that make some conferences more likely than other to succeed. Over the past five years or so, a definite hierarchy has emerged. The SEC is on top for the reasons described about. The Big XII and Pac Ten are in the next tier, most likely because they draw talent from the two major recruiting bases outside of the SEC states: California and Texas. This year will likely be the fourth straight year in which those two leagues supply the opposition for the SEC in the national title game. The third tier is comprised of the ACC and Big Ten, which are the underachievers of the BCS. The ACC has fertile recruiting areas and the Big Ten has revenue fan/media interest, but neither league can convert those blessings into on-field success. The Big East is the last tier, representing the leftovers of the other leagues. None of this is indicative of a cyclical situation, which requires that conferences are roughly equal. The SEC’s recent dominance refutes Mandel’s concept of a cyclical world, so he has to predict doom around every corner. That’s why he’s taking the implausible position that adding Missouri will cause Nick Saban to forget how to coach and Louisiana recruits to lose interest in going to Baton Rouge.