First, I voted for Florida State as my preferred 14th SEC team in Nico's poll. I would really like to see them in the SEC for several reasons. That seems to be pretty non-controversial, based on the (early) poll results there, so I won't spend any time defending that choice.
However, as I've stated before, if there is eventually going to be a 15th and 16th team, I vote for North Carolina and Duke. This opinion will be much more controversial, but here's why I'd like to see it and why it deserves more consideration than people think.
Bama's path to the national championship
People keep talking about only adding the best football programs. That seems to be everyone's starting point, and I think it is the wrong starting point, from a Bama fan perspective. The SEC is already the strongest conference in college football. There is no debating it anymore and everyone across the country, however much they hate to admit, will indeed admit at this point that it is clearly the strongest. Whatever advantages there are to be gained from your conference being perceived as the strongest, we already enjoy those advantages and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future so long as the SEC remains at its current strength.
Trying to make the conference even stronger at this point is pure overkill, and it will only decrease the likelihood that Bama gets to compete for national championships. Presumably--even under a 4-team playoff system, which may be coming in the intermediate future--only one team from the SEC will get to compete for the national title each year. We should want to increase the likelihood that that one team is us, and packing the conference with the best teams around is in direct opposition to this goal.
Sorry, but my biggest goal for Bama football is winning national championships, and I just don't see how making the SEC even more of a buzzsaw than it already is helps us in that regard. You may say, "well, to be the best you gotta beat the best". I hear that, but really it's all about finding a way to get to that championship game, and the easier that path is, the better chance you have. Take Ohio State for example. They've gotten invites to the BCS championship game 3 times in the last decade. I firmly believe they weren't one of the top 2 or probably even 5 teams any of those years. Sure, they got shown up 2 times against better teams (06 and 07), but guess what, if you're given enough chances, probability dictates you're going to succeed eventually and that's exactly what they did in 02 by beating a superior Miami team in a controversial overtime finish.
I personally like the SEC at its current strength level. Why not try to keep it at the same level? Florida State as a program, looking ahead for the foreseeable future, is in a position to compete with the elite of the elite, Bama, LSU, Florida, you name it. Don't let the malaise of the program the last 4-5 years of Bowden's painfully slow and delayed departure fool you. They're in position to be a force and can/should be up there with the truly elite programs.
Next, take Texas A&M. We know all about them. Tradition, resources, etc. At worst they should be able to compete in the top half of the conference along with the likes of Auburn, Arkansas, Georgia, etc. Here's where the issue comes up, though. Do you really want to add even more teams at this level or better? If so, why?
I propose adding a program that is on the level of your next tier of programs in the current SEC. North Carolina can be that program. There is absolutely no reason, given its location (massive and fast-growing state with few competitors) and resources, that North Carolina can't be at least as strong as programs like South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi State, etc for the foreseeable future.
Then you have Duke. I'm not here to make any case for Duke football. Quite the contrary. I will concede they would be a yearly bottom feeder. But that is precisely the point. If you're going to add three programs like the ones listed above, and you want to keep the conference at the current strength level, you need to add another Vanderbilt/Kentucky/Ole Miss to even things out. Duke will be more Vanderbilt, less Ole Miss or Kentucky, but still, they bring a lot to the table in other areas. Which brings up the next point.
Bringing in the $$$
All of the talk about adding TV viewers and expanding the market and whatnot, and people completely ignore that one of the South's largest and fastest-growing states is completely devoid of SEC schools. North Carolina's 9.5 million people rank it alongside Georgia's 9.5 million as the two largest states in the South outside of Florida. By comparison, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina and Arkansas all have less than half their population, and aren't growing nearly as fast. Of the top 50 cities in the country by metro population, Raleigh is the fastest growing according to the 2010 census. Charlotte meanwhile is the 33rd largest city, and it is growing faster than any city ahead of it save one (Las Vegas).
I understand the NC markets might already be somewhat SEC-friendly given its geographic proximity, but adding the state's two most prominent schools would lock in the state as solid SEC territory, not a trivial fact given the size and growth rate of the state. The one downside from the $$ perspective is that televising Duke football games (and to a lesser extent UNC football games) won't be a huge draw nationally. That may true, but really, how many Duke games will actually get the prime slots anyway? How many does Vanderbilt get now? And there will still be plenty of huge SEC games to televise even if Duke games end up on the SEC Network. UNC should be able to bring the same national prominence or better than a West Virginia, Louisville or Missouri. Again, UNC has more resources and a better recruiting base than any of those schools, and as part of the SEC, I firmly believe they could/should be competitive.
And speaking of money, can you really have a talk about adding North Carolina and Duke without talking the roundball? UNC-Duke basketball games rake in TV ratings on par with SEC football games. Let that sink in: the SEC would get 2 extra television events each year that get the same ratings as your typical SEC football game on CBS. And that's just when the two schools play each other. Their massive and loyal fanbases would drive up basketball TV revenue for all of the conference, not to mention increase the prestige, level of play and overall TV demand for the entire conference. The big billion-dollar basketball cash cow of course is the NCAA Tournament, in which revenues are not spread out by conference affiliation, but regular season games are, and yearly games featuring Kentucky-Duke, Kentucky-UNC, UNC-Duke, Duke-Arkansas, Bama-UNC, Tennessee-Duke, on and on would bring in not an insignificant amount of $$ to the SEC coffers. Regular season basketball games don't bring in what regular season football games do, but again, it's significant and worth consideration.
If you laugh at this or think some SEC Presidents won't at least be a little enticed by this, you may be right, but I don't think so. According to the oft-cited U.S. News rankings, Duke is a top 10 university in the U.S., trailing only Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Penn, Cal Tech and MIT. UNC is the 5th-ranked public university in the nation, trailing only Cal, UCLA, Virginia and Michigan. It is also ranked among the top 30 universities overall. College Presidents know this, and they know the weight and respect these two schools carry academically.
Obviously, academic prestige has nothing to do with athletics, or even the money you make off athletics, but I, for one, believe associating with prestigious schools like Duke and North Carolina would be of great value to the universities in the SEC in the long term. Dr. Witt has mentioned on multiple occasions that he would like for UA to be mentioned alongside the nation's top public universities, specifically at some points if I recall correctly, mentioning UVA and UNC by name.
Like it or not, the SEC has a less than stellar reputation nationally as a group of schools that are too focused on athletics and have a win-at-all costs mentality. We oftentimes don't help ourselves in this regard, but conference expansion could give us an opportunity to send a message and reshape the conference's academic makeup for the better. Doing so could further the University's own stated goals and academic prestige, something that should be important to every UA alum.
Some possible reasons it won't happen
Let's not kid ourselves, at the end of the day, this will all probably come down to the $$. I made a case for why adding UNC and Duke could benefit the SEC in terms of adding markets and viewers. However, I am in no way a media marketing expert. Really, you'd need a media consultant to really analyze things thoroughly in ways that none of us are qualified to do in order to really know which teams would be more advantageous purely from a financial standpoint. It could well be that adding UNC and Duke just doesn't make financial sense compared to schools like Missouri or Virginia Tech. That may be the case, I just don't know, but I stand by my assertion that UNC and Duke would add value--more value than people think--however that might compare to other schools.
There's also the politics of it all. From a political perspective, could UNC actually leave the ACC, and take Duke (a private school) with them, but not take NC State (the other major public school)? And would SEC schools like Tennessee and South Carolina try to oppose such a move for fear of competition in their area? These things I just cannot answer.
At the end of the day, if the SEC is determined to expand to 16 teams (and I'm not saying they are), and the 13th and 14th teams are great football programs that bring a lot to the table in terms of national viewership (like Texas A&M and FSU), then I would like for the 15th and 16th teams to be schools that help in different ways while still keeping the SEC at its current strength level in football.
In conclusion, adding UNC and Duke would help UA in these ways:
- keeping the path to the national championship manageable by keeping the SEC at its current strength in football
- expanding the SEC revenue pie by bringing in one of the largest and fastest growing states in the country and also greatly increasing the value of SEC basketball TV rights
-boosting the academic reputation of the SEC
Even if you disagree about specifically adding North Carolina and Duke, I would encourage everyone to think long and hard about what it is we as fans really want out of additional teams in an expanded SEC. In my opinion, just adding the best football programs we can find wouldn't be the best thing for UA, so at the end of the day what I'm trying to do here is challenge that baseline assumption that people seem to be starting with.
EDIT: note: in this proposed scenario, Duke and UNC would be added to the East, Texas A&M to the West, and Vanderbilt shifted to the West. Vandy shifting would make sense geographically and competitively.