Missouri, Texas A&M enter SEC's world
Remember SEC commissioner Mike Slive's patented line whenever somebody would ask him about expansion back when the college football landscape was changing before our very eyes?
"We're going to be strategic and thoughtful," Slive would repeat when quizzed about the SEC's interest in broadening its horizons.
All the while, Nebraska was in the process of changing addresses from the Big 12 to the Big Ten. The Pac-12 (then the Pac-10) was reportedly on the verge of becoming a super-conference with the addition of Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
There were more expansion rumors and more possible new configurations thrown out there for conferences than the number of touchdowns Alabama's defense allowed this past season.
The SEC didn't bury its head in the sand.
Slive remains coy when asked with whom the SEC had discussions and how everything played out, but he was discreetly in the middle of the expansion fray.
When it looked like Texas might be bolting for the Pac-12 two summers ago, the SEC had talks with Oklahoma and Texas A&M.
The Big 12 found a way to hold it together at the last minute, at least for one more year.
But when the expansion dust finally cleared, it was a given that Texas A&M was going somewhere that Texas wasn't, and it was just as much of a given that the SEC was going to do what it had to do to get a foothold in the state.
So here we are with the new SEC. Texas A&M jumped into the boat first, and despite what the SEC says publicly, the league had to have a 14th team.
Along came Missouri, which was understandably nervous about the instability of the Big 12 and the possibility of being left without a conference if the boys from Texas and Oklahoma ever decided to take their football and go play elsewhere.
If it wasn't going to be Missouri for that 14th team, the other realistic choice for the SEC was West Virginia. Slive wanted no part of raiding the ACC, although there was some support in the league for Virginia Tech. In Slive's mind, if teams were expressing interest in joining the SEC, that was one thing. But he didn't want to be a party to going in and recruiting ACC teams, especially given the Florida-Florida State, Clemson-South Carolina and Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalries.
The SEC presidents liked the idea of enhancing the league's academic reputation by bringing in another Association of American Universities member. Texas A&M is also part of that invitation-only organization along with existing SEC schools Florida and Vanderbilt.
But let's not kid ourselves. Expansion is about money, and the SEC is banking on new television markets in Dallas, Houston and St. Louis creating even more bargaining power with all of the networks when it sits down again at the negotiating table.
On the football field, the SEC was fine as it was.
That's pretty obvious when you look at the trophy cases around the league. Alabama just put the finishing touches on the SEC's sixth straight BCS national championship and defeated LSU in what was an all-SEC national title game.
The 2011 season ended with four SEC teams -- No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 LSU, No. 5 Arkansas and No. 8 South Carolina -- ranked among the top eight teams in the USA Today coaches' poll. Five teams won 10 or more games, and the SEC went 6-3 in bowl games.
From a purely football perspective, the league has never been healthier.
What will Missouri and Texas A&M add to the equation?
The truth is that both schools probably needed the SEC more than the SEC needed them.
The fertile recruiting ground in the state of Texas will be more inviting than ever before for SEC coaches now that a marquee school from that state is in the league.
The Aggies also have a long, rich tradition in football with a fan base that's both passionate and demanding.
It's a crowd that will fit in well in the SEC, where fans' idea of patience is giving the coach an extra day to pack his boxes before the moving van pulls up to his curb.
Both Missouri and Texas A&M are solid enough programs that it's just going to be that much harder to make it through the grind of the SEC.
But the grind will be what Missouri and Texas A&M have the hardest time adjusting to, because there's no way to prepare for it other than going through it and learning to survive on the fly.
It takes time, too.
Just ask Arkansas and South Carolina. They were part of the SEC's last expansion 20 years ago when the league went to 12 teams and split into two divisions in 1992.
Both teams are still looking for their first SEC championship, and between them, they've been to only three SEC championship games. South Carolina didn't make its first trip to Atlanta until the 2010 season.
Perhaps Missouri and Texas A&M will break through a little sooner, but history is working against them.
Either way, the SEC isn't going anywhere, and despite all of the realignment around the country, it's still the SEC and everybody else when it comes to college football supremacy.
Missouri and Texas A&M are now a part of that exclusive fraternity.
To some, it may seem like an odd cultural fit, especially when you think about Missouri playing in the Eastern Division. Talk about some long road trips.
There's also a certain edge to SEC football. Some call it ruthless. Others call it dirty. But most of the people who live and thrive in this league call it survival of the fittest.
How fit are Missouri and Texas A&M?
We're about to find out.
Chris Low covers the SEC for ESPN.com.
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