When the SEC invited Oklahoma and Texas as future members Thursday, the conference fortified itself as the unquestioned superpower in college football.
And the sport lost a piece of its soul.
That’s not meant as a shot to the Sooners, Longhorns or SEC, who are understandably protecting themselves and their best interests. It’s merely a statement of fact — a reflection of where college sports used to be and where they’re going.
For generations, college football has been a regional sport played nationally. There was SEC country, and there was Big 12 country. The Big Ten controlled the Midwest while the ACC and Pac-12 did their things on the coasts. Aside from a few national brands — Notre Dame, Alabama, Ohio State — and marquee non-conference matchups, there was little overlap. A fall Saturday in Dallas or Oklahoma City centered on the Big 12, just as it revolved around the SEC in Atlanta or Birmingham.
The regionalization created the deeply personal rivalries that separate college sports from the NFL and everything else. Coworkers from nearby schools discuss that weekend’s games around the watercooler. Neighbors brag at the grocery store or talk trash on social media. There’s a reason you see house divided license plates for the Gators/Seminoles and Oklahoma/Oklahoma State but not Bucs/Panthers or Rays/Red Sox.
That regionalization weakened in the last round of realignment. Missouri left Border War rival Kansas to play Florida and Kentucky every year. Texas A&M stopped playing Texas to join the SEC West.
Nebraska-Oklahoma. Pitt-West Virginia. Gone and gone, thanks to realignment.
Even if in-state rivalries like Oklahoma-Oklahoma State and Texas-Texas Tech survive this shakeup —and here’s hoping they do — other longtime series will end. Oklahoma-Kansas and Texas-Baylor first took place in 1903. A century’s worth of history and tradition will go on ice.
That’s the trade-off for a move like the one both schools are prepared to take. Nationally, the games will mean more. Oklahoma-Alabama and Texas-Florida will command more attention than Oklahoma-Baylor and Texas-Kansas State. More attention means more eyeballs, more money, more elite recruits and, perhaps, more championships.
But regionally, the games will mean less. Fans lose something when their teams stop playing neighbors. Their watercooler conversations won’t be the same, especially if the realignment dominoes continue to fall.
What if the Big 12 splinters across the country? Oklahoma State and Texas Tech don’t have much in common with the Pac-12′s UCLA and Washington. Aside from Iowa-Iowa State, the Jayhawks and Cyclones have little history in the Big Ten; they’ve combined for one all-time game against Michigan. At least West Virginia moving to the ACC would rekindle the Backyard Brawl with Pitt.
The sport’s evolution from regional to national began before Texas and Oklahoma got wandering eyes, and it won’t stop when they switch leagues.
College football is a TV product now, to the detriment of fans who want to know kickoff times with more than six days’ notice. Because it’s a TV product, TV partners matter more. They want bigger audiences, which means producing more nationally relevant games. Florida-Oklahoma won’t just draw viewers in Tampa and Tulsa. It will get them in Topeka and Tacoma and everywhere else in a way that Baylor-Oklahoma won’t.
Those kinds of big-name matchups are coming when Texas and Oklahoma join the SEC, and they should excite college football fans. But don’t look past what the sport is giving up to get them.
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