Conference realignment is all the rage these days in college athletics, specifically regarding to division I-A football. Last year’s wave of realignment ended with no changes being made to the SEC (thankfully). This go around has already seen Texas A&M enter the SEC and Missouri is now at the center of the topic of further expansion.
I didn’t like the idea of expansion last year. I didn’t care for the inclusion of Texas A&M in the SEC. Nothing against A&M, I just prefer the current lineup of teams because expansion means that rivals are likely going to be coming to an end (particularly UA/UT…a more important game to me than the Iron Bowl). Since A&M is a done deal, there’s no need crying over spilt milk.
As for Missouri, there are several things that make me hesitant to support their inclusion in the SEC – geography, football ethos, but it’s academics I want to focus on here..
I focus on academics because it gets a lot of talk from administrators but is really of little value on the sports side of the equation. First, Missouri is a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU), an elitist organization “devoted to maintaining a strong system of academic research and education.” I’m all for excellence in research and academics, but am not sure membership in the AAU is a single strong enough criterion on which to base the academic quality of an institution. In fact, the Big Ten, in allowing Nebraska to join the league, likely extended the invitation to them based in part on Nebraska’s membership in the AAU (Nebraska was subsequently voted out of the AAU in 2011). Missouri’s first choice was to be with other AAU schools (only Florida and Vanderbilt were the only AAU members in the SEC until the entrance of Texas A&M). If Missouri’s first choice was the Big Ten, who is to say Mizzou won’t jump ship a little ways down the road if the Big Ten comes calling to expand to 14 or 16 teams?
While the AAU is an indicator of a school’s academic standing, it’s not the indicator. There are myriad publications that do rankings of universities based on all kinds of criteria. One of the most familiar is that published by US News and World Report. In their 2011 rankings Missouri ranked 90th, tied with three other universities (SUNY-Binghamton, Miami at Oxford, and St. Louis University). This is certainly a good score, but Alabama (75th-t), Auburn (82nd-t) and Georgia (62nd-t) all scored higher than Missouri and are not members of the illustrious AAU. (The three AAU schools in the SEC were ranked 17th (Vanderbilt), 58th-t (Florida), and 58th-t (Texas A&M).) What’s my point? AAU membership is not the end all, be all of academic indicators and if Missouri feels like they would feel more comfortable in the Big Ten (in which Nebraska is the only institution that is not a member of the AAU after being kicked out), then SEC administrators should consider carefully how well they think Missouri may fit into the SEC and if they fear Missouri may one day bolt for greener pastures, academically speaking. (Would the Big Ten consider kicking Nebraska out since they no longer are part of the AAU?)
Geography may be a problem–the distance to other SEC schools, being a mid-western state in a southern conference. Also, the football ethos at Missouri seems to be different from most places in the SEC (except maybe Vanderbilt or Kentucky) with a stadium that ranks fourth in the Big XII but will rank tenth in the SEC, not to mention two NFL teams within 120 miles. I’m not saying Missouri isn’t serious about football, I just have no reason to believe they take it as seriously as fans in Tuscaloosa, Starkville, Athens, Baton Rouge, Knoxville, Auburn, or Gainseville. It seems serious culture shock may be inevitable.
In the end, I don’t really think geography will be a major deterrent (the Pioneer League, a non-scholarship I-AA conference operates from Florida to California to New York and points in between). And when all the dust settles it will be the almighty dollar that trumps all the high and mighty academics rhetoric.