Why the move portends bad results—for both Tennessee and college football as a whole.
Before everyone could even make sense of it all, it happened.
What started with a rumor—that Texas and Oklahoma were unhappy in the Big 12, and wanted to go to the SEC—became a reality in less than 2 weeks. We entered July wondering how Tennessee would do next season, and we left it wondering which pod they’ll be in when the 16-team conglomerate conference starts scheduling.
The vote was done by university presidents in the span of days. The only way fans found out about it was through social media. There was no public discussion, no timeline ever given, no one was consulted besides a group of academics poring over excel spreadsheets. The idea did not event exist 14 days ago. Much of the process was allegedly done in secret, and potentially done illegally. By Thursday, July 29th, the vote was in, and preparations would begin to admit Texas and Oklahoma by 2025. If you were on a family road trip, you likely missed one of the biggest developments in college football history.
It all feels so bizarre, doesn’t it? The fact that it happened so quickly, and how it marks the beginning of the end? All in 2 weeks.
One way or another, Texas and Oklahoma are coming to the conference. This is, assuredly, not the end of realignment. More could happen next month. Or maybe next year. Or maybe in 2024, or 2025. Maybe even all the way into 2030. But the point is, the powers that be are now shifting to a vastly different landscape than what we are accustomed to. On the horizon? A dominant 16-team SEC with a near monopoly on national title contenders and elite revenue football programs.
There seems to be a divide in fanbases. At first, much of the reaction by other SEC fanbases was one of negativity. Why bring in two programs who can quickly overtake your own? Having Alabama and Georgia as consistent contenders was hard enough…why bring in a top-5 Oklahoma team and a sleeping giant Texas?
Then, the opposite opinion began to form. This part of the fanbase argues that not only is a stronger SEC good for Tennessee—but the development of a master SEC conference is good for the sport at large.
Suffice to say, I disagree. Tennessee fans thankful for a good SEC are akin to a lion in a cramped zoo, thankful it has a zookeeper.
Seriously, why do we all care about the conference money pool if it results in Tennessee being at the bottom rungs of the ladder?
This isn’t just cheering for a conference during bowl season, or even during an out-of-conference matchup. This is a multiyear decision that immediately results in an intentional downgrade of Tennessee’s standing in its own conference. The Volunteers already have their work cut out for them if they want to surpass 3-4 teams in their own division. Cheering the SEC for bringing in Texas and Oklahoma is cheering for Tennessee’s demise.
It would almost appear that some Tennessee fans are generally just SEC fans. They can’t even call themselves fans of college football, because they know the “megaconferences” will kill off probably 1/3 teams that don’t neatly fit into realignment talks. Your school doesn’t make boatloads of money? Your school isn’t smack dab in the middle of a hugely populated region? Tough luck. Guess you should’ve considered living somewhere else.
Do you like watching the “Cinderellas” of the sport? That’s over. Once the megaconferences form, that’s the end of it. No Boise State, no UCF, no Coastal Carolina, no Houston, no Northern Illinois, etc. You don’t have to believe these teams would ever win a national championship—I’m saying that the very reason they’re fun to watch is going to be wiped away. We love to watch the underdogs fight the giants. Yes, the giants win a lot. But you don’t love sports if you don’t love a David vs. Goliath story.
The recent news means those teams will never even get the chance of doing so.
There is one benefit that I might be able to get behind with these transactions: The eventual dissolution of the NCAA, with something more tenable and more just. An organization that has sensible policies regarding compensation, who understands the unique dynamic that makes college football so interesting.
But that’s not how it would play out.
Rather, the result would be an even more exacerbated situation, where the big money-making schools give the finger to the rest of the teams and become the true NFL feeder systems. Athletic departments completely devoid of any appreciation or ideas for college football. Simply processing athletes, giving them a degree with the school’s name on it, without ever having to care about who they took in. Essentially the same exact problem with higher education in general. You get rid of a monarchy and then you just replace it with feudalism.
If you believe some reports, this eventually results in a 30-team monster conference that completely swamps any team left out of it. College football—and potentially collegiate sports as a whole—does a speed run to what we feared. A split, between the “Major” teams, and the “Minor” teams.
By the way, if you’re a fan of a team like Missouri…why do you think the SEC will be loyal to your program? Let’s say the aforementioned monster conference happens. Who do you think provides more value: Your team, or someone like Ohio State, USC, Oregon, Clemson?
If you like college football, this is the nightmare scenario. The tradition, camaraderie, and community feel of the sport is unparalleled. If we continue down this path, we are going to end up squashing all of that.
So if you’re one of those fans who says “Tennessee is going to be bad regardless, so we should just enjoy the big games”, be prepared for a bad Tennessee team that goes ahead and doesn’t play the rivals every year, and instead loses to teams that it has no history with.
What kind of mentality is that? If you don’t care about Tennessee’s future and just want the best for the conference, go ahead and buy some SEC gear and cheer for whoever is on SEC Network at the time. It’s a lot more understandable than claiming you’re a Tennessee fan.
Perhaps I’m being too critical. Yes, Tennessee’s struggles year after year do make it difficult to keep up with the program. Yes, the current configuration of the sport is not sustainable. But the nuclear option is not always the right one.
There’s also something to say about the money aspect.
The argument goes like this: More money for the SEC means better things for Tennessee. Every team gets a cut of the pie, even when they aren’t winning. The bigger the pie, the better. The money helps programs build and keeps them competitive.
Is there a more objectively disproven argument? The SEC makes the most money of any major conference, and Tennessee has been abysmal for most of the last decade. Teams like Ole Miss, Arkansas, Kentucky, all have largely seen their status in the SEC unchanged.
It’s not like the money is some key to success in sports beyond football. If an SEC program wants to be competitive in, let’s say, baseball…they need a very small fraction of a payout to do so. In Tennessee’s case, coach Tony Vitello makes just $1.5 million per year and he’s one of the highest paid in the nation. The renovations to Lindsey Nelson Stadium could be the most expensive ever done in the history of college baseball—and it would cost around half of what Tennessee football makes in a single year.
Tennessee is not starving for money either. In case you were wondering.
Here’s the honest-to-God truth. Tennessee could leave the SEC tomorrow, and they would immediately become one of the most sought after programs in the nation. Tennessee is a top-15 revenue program that has weathered the absolute worst stretch in its athletic history. Now, they are slowly emerging from it. The football team is obviously figuring itself out. But the men’s basketball team is now a force in the SEC, along with a promising start for baseball. Other sports like softball, women’s basketball, and more have been decent for quite some time (even if they aren’t as good as they once were.)
The athletic department brings in tens of million dollars of revenue on its own, and the raw value of the program reaches into the hundreds of millions. Why in the world do people care so much if Tennessee gets a little more money, in exchange for a much harder path to relevance?
Fans of G5 teams are probably chuckling while reading this article. For years, their teams have been shut out of any national title discussions, money-making conference ventures, and more. Now, that reality will set in for another large swath of teams.
Honestly? That might be a pretty fun reality, should those schools want to continue on with their football programs. Instead of a focus on TV rights and money, they get to focus on regional rivalries and keeping up a version of college football that’s been fading for years. They won’t need to try and outbid the “Major” schools for recruits. ESPN won’t be stepping in and trying to turn members against each other. One team won’t be making excessive demands from the conference in order to appease them.
At the end of the day, if you are a Tennessee fan, you must care for something more than a conference. You cannot put value on money that you will never see.
You did not follow the Volunteers on the hopes that they would eventually secure a spot in the NFL feeder system. You followed them because the team meant something to either you, your family, or those around you. You are not expecting yearly national title contention—but you expect a fair chance to at least try for it.
This is all yelling into the void. Texas and Oklahoma are coming. They probably won’t be the last two to arrive either. Whatever the future holds, it certainly doesn’t look like it’s bringing good things for Tennessee.