Conference Realignment: Why Is Missouri A Target For SEC Expansion?

Photo via Rock M Nation's Bill Carter.

The actions of Missouri's Curators last night suggest a move to the SEC is imminent, and conference realignment is not yet over. While nothing is solid until the ink dries on the contracts (just ask Oklahoma), let's take a look at what Missouri has to offer.

Saturday afternoon, Missouri faces its most significant game of the season, a road trip to Manhattan to take on the No. 20 Kansas State Wildcats, over whom they are currently three-point favorites. (This, by the way, furthers what I have been saying about the ridiculous significance we put on human polls. Missouri is not receiving a single vote in the AP poll right now, but they are still road favorites over the No. 20 team? What exactly are we ranking?)

The Tigers have won at least seven games in every season since 2004, at least eight in four of the last five years, but a loss to KSU would move them to 2-3 and make reaching eight wins a chore. At the same time, if they win, they will create a pretty clear path toward a second-place finish in the conference if they are able to knock off Oklahoma State and Texas at home. The narrative will shift pretty heavily in one direction or the other after this game.

And you'll need to pardon Missouri fans for not paying much attention to the game just yet.

Last night, the University of Missouri board of curators announced that it was granting chancellor Brady Deaton "the authority to take any and all actions necessary to fully explore options for conference affiliation and contracts related there to, which best serve the interests of the University of Missouri-Columbia and the University of Missouri system." In the language known as "Conference Realignment-ese," that means Missouri is likely leaving the Big 12. It also means that they think they already have a landing spot, likely the Southeastern Conference, to which it has been linked for a couple of weeks now.

There is always a chance that a Mizzou-to-SEC move does not take place. Oklahoma granted president David Boren similar rights not too long ago, and it turned out that Oklahoma did not have the clear path to the Pac-12 that it expected. Missouri fans have dealt with Lucy-and-Charlie-Brown situations for decades, and it would be incredibly premature to assume that the "SEC decides not to pursue Missouri, and MU stays in the Big 12" scenario is completely off the table. But at this point, the most likely scenario is that, after a few days (or, potentially, weeks) of vaguely-worded "We're exploring all options" statements from Missouri and "We're happy with 13 members" pronouncements from the SEC, the two entities join forces. And it will probably happen in time for the 2012-13 academic year.

I am in a unique position on this topic: I am a two-time Missouri alum, and I run SBN's Missouri site, Rock M Nation. With the daily space I am afforded here, I felt it might be a good use of my time to address some of the more frequently-asked questions I've been seeing and receiving recently.

Isn't Missouri a basketball school?

For over a decade in the 1980s and 1990s, Missouri football was a wasteland, while Missouri basketball was pretty good. That made Missouri, by default, a basketball school; to be sure, Mizzou fans do enjoy basketball quite a bit. But in the pre-collapse 1970s, there was no doubting that Missouri's football culture was dominant, and with winning returning to Columbia, those fans are beginning to get back to that point. For huge football games, Mizzou will draw over 70,000; for cupcakes, 58,000-64,000. You are not dealing with an enormous, Tennessee-sized fanbase here, but they are certainly superior to West Virginia and some of the other candidates (at least, the other candidates that would be available if the "no school from a state already in the footprint" agreement truly exists).

Wouldn't Missouri prefer the Big Ten?

What makes Missouri unique is that it truly is the "Gateway" state they proclaim to be. My joke for a while has been that Missouri is half-Illinois, half-Tennessee. If you grew up in St. Louis, you basically grew up in Big Ten country, especially if your youth coincided with Missouri's football drought. But a good portion of the state considers itself southern and either a) preferred the SEC all along or b) would have preferred the SEC if they thought it was a feasible option. The Big Ten is a draw to a lot of Missouri academic types because membership to that conference includes membership to the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC).

Here's the deal, however: unless there have been some incredibly covert, unexpected conversations taking place, the Big Ten is not on the radar screen. And as I mentioned at Team Speed Kills last night, if Missouri goes to the SEC, the pining for the Big Ten ends for most. The Big Ten is certainly a cultural fit for a solid portion of the state, but it was also seen as the most attractive option because it seemed like the only option. Since the SEC became a possibility, a good portion of fan sentiment has shifted.

Won't Missouri just be another doormat?

Missouri entered this season ranked 17th in four-year F/+, a solid overall measure of program strength. That would place them right between Georgia, Arkansas and South Carolina in the SEC hierarchy -- fourth in the SEC West, third in the SEC East. The Tigers are not a threat to win national titles every season, but the foundation is certainly strong enough for them to become another Arkansas, a program that struggles when young/rebuilding but makes a nice run every couple of years when the pieces come together. They are not Alabama, but they are also not Vanderbilt.

What kind of cultural fit is Missouri?

This is the million-dollar question. As mentioned above, Missouri is a midwestern state in many ways, but in terms of sports culture, their fans can certainly evince the type of obsession one expects from a southeastern program. They set the College Gameday attendance record last year, they tailgate pretty well, they want to fire their offensive coordinator every time they score under 30 points, they posted 3,300 comments about a Curators meeting yesterday ... all quality indications of a solid sports culture, I would think.

The biggest difference between Missouri and a lot of SEC programs is the state of the, well, state: Missouri is also home to quite a few professional teams with which Mizzou fans split their sports budget. If you, sports fan, are from St. Louis, you are probably also attending quite a few Cardinals games in a given year. If you, sports fan, are from Kansas City, you are probably sucking it up and following the Chiefs and Royals. This means a good portion of the fanbase will be splitting its sports budget between Mizzou and others, meaning they won't necessarily attend every Mizzou football and basketball game. This creates decent variance in attendance between big games and lesser ones, but again, that's nothing you don't evidently find in Morgantown and elsewhere.

Is Missouri good at any other sports?

Mizzou has been to the Women's College World Series for three consecutive years, which will obviously play well in the SEC. The Tigers made the volleyball Sweet Sixteen last year, made the men's basketball Elite Eight two years ago, made the gymnastics nationals in 2010, won the Big 12 soccer title in 2009, and they recently ended a long streak of consecutive NCAA regional appearances in baseball. The Missouri athletic department is not elite, but it is rather solid across the board.

What makes Missouri a better fit than West Virginia or anybody else?

As a Missouri fan, I would be all for the conference also adding West Virginia (three five-team pods sounds fun) and/or another program, so I do not necessarily feel the need to tell you why Missouri is superior to other programs. I can, however, tell you what SEC commissioner Mike Slive probably sees in Missouri:

  • A solid athletic program. This does matter, and Missouri does have it.
  • Strong academics. Missouri would become the fourth Association of Academic Universities (AAU) university in the SEC (joining Florida, Vanderbilt and now Texas A&M), and we have heard in recent days that this also matters quite a bit.
  • An extended footprint. As Clay Travis has been hammering for a week now, the SEC Network looks like a distinct possibility in the near future. Missouri's presence in the SEC would add two strong markets and one solid state to the geographic footprint. By no means does Mizzou "own" the Kansas City and St. Louis markets -- they split Kansas City with Kansas, Kansas State and others, while St. Louis has always been a solid Big Ten foothold outside of its Mizzou influence -- but for these purposes, that doesn't matter. You make more money when your network is offered to a television set within the footprint, and Mizzou offers a lot of television sets. (Does anyone still call them "television sets"?)

Outside of perhaps Maryland, no program on the candidates list -- West Virginia, Louisville, N.C. State, etc. -- can combine athletics, academics and market size that Missouri can.

In terms of fit, Missouri is solid across the board, but never spectacular; perfectly competitive, but never dominant. We will soon find out if that is good enough for Mike Slive. The rumors suggest it is, but rumors don't put signatures on contracts. Missouri is probably headed toward the SEC, but with conference realignment, "probably" means nothing. (Just ask Oklahoma). That goes double when Missouri and its odd, scarred history are involved.

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