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SEC Football: Assessing the Progress for Missouri and Texas A&M Entering Year 10 in the Conference

Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M Aggies football

Entering its 10th season in the SEC, Texas A&M is a program on the rise under head coach Jimbo Fisher

When Texas A&M decided to leave the Big 12 and accept an invitation to join the SEC in the late summer of 2011, it was a middling program that had recorded one winning regular season in four years and had finished a season ranked in the final AP poll just once in the previous 12 seasons.

But loyal followers of the team knew that this was the step that was needed to unlock the full potential of a program that had been dormant for too long.

“(The fans) celebrated like they had won the national championship just by getting into the conference,” says Stewart Mandel, college football editor-in-chief for The Athletic.

While no national championship has followed, Texas A&M finished last season ranked No. 4 and enters 2021 with hopes of a similarly lofty finish. Head coach Jimbo Fisher, who was hired away from Florida State in 2017 with a record contract, has been recruiting at an elite level. Fundraising and revenue have skyrocketed, and the wins have followed.

Missouri also decided to leave the Big 12 for the SEC in 2011, and its record of success has been a bit more uneven. The Tigers were actually the superior program to Texas A&M when both lived in the Big 12, and it reeled in two SEC East titles in the early days of its new conference. But things have fallen off a bit since, recruiting hasn’t really improved much with the conference switch and the Tigers’ athletic department is not in measurably better shape financially than when it was in the Big 12.

As the two teams enter their 10th year of play in the SEC this fall — both schools joined the SEC for the 2012 season — it is clear that the move benefited one program more than the other.

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After all the chaos, backroom dealing and uncertainty involving the Big 12 in the summers of 2010 and 2011, Texas A&M’s pursuit of a spot in the SEC basically came down to one thing.

“It was the Longhorn Network and inequity,” says Pete Thamel, national college football writer for Yahoo Sports. “And they have been treated like equals in the SEC.”

The Longhorn Network was actually the sticking point that ended the Pac-12’s bid to become the Pac-16 (adding Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State) and temporarily held a 12-team Big 12 together. But when it became clear that the network would create an even more pronounced Texas-first mentality throughout the league, Texas A&M was ready to bolt for the SEC.

R. Bowen Loftin, who was the president of Texas A&M at the time of the transition, provided a spreadsheet to The Athletic in 2019 outlining the pros and cons of membership in the Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC that the leaders of Texas A&M debated in 2011. Under the category of “Texas A&M Independence and Leadership,” the SEC column read “Greatly Enhanced.”

And while Texas A&M knew it would be swimming in deeper waters from a competitive standpoint in football, it also knew that the move would yield some recruiting advantages inside the state of Texas.

“At the time, you had Texas, Texas A&M and all the other schools in the state basically playing in the same conference,” says Fisher, who was at Florida State at the time. “(Moving to the SEC) gives you a different recruiting perspective in the state of Texas that you can sell to your players that the other schools in the state can’t. I was very intrigued by the move. Everyone wanted to see how it would work, but I saw where they were coming from.”

Indeed, it has paid off not only for Texas A&M as a program but also for the SEC as a whole, at least when it comes to the state of Texas. According to 247Sports, in the 10 recruiting cycles prior to joining the SEC, Texas A&M had an average national ranking of 20. In the 10 cycles since, that ranking has jumped to No. 11, with the last three classes under Fisher checking in at Nos. 4, 6 and 7.

The top players in Texas are considering the SEC like never before. In the 10 cycles before Texas A&M joined, an average of 3.7 of the state’s players ranked in 247Sports’ top 247 nationally signed with SEC programs each season. In the 10 years since, that number has jumped to 13.4. In the 2021 cycle, the SEC nabbed 21 Texas-based players ranked in the top 247 nationally. The Big 12 signed just nine.

“When A&M went there, it opened up the state of Texas to all the schools in the SEC,” Fisher says. “You are playing in the league with the most attention and the most credibility.”

In addition to the uptick in recruiting, Texas A&M saw an immediate boost in fundraising, and total revenue (and profits) in the athletic department as a whole is way up since 2011. According to the College Athletics Financial Information Database from the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, TAMU’s average revenue was $81 million and average expenses were $71 million from 2005-11. From 2012-18 (the latest years for which the data is provided), those averages jumped to $163M in revenue and $117M in expenses, with profit rising on average from $10M to $46M annually.

“I was there for the Clemson game (in 2018),” Mandel says. “The whole place has changed. The stadium is unbelievable. The amount of money that is flowing in.”

That money allowed Texas A&M to hire Fisher away from Florida State just four years after he won a national championship. A 10-year, $75 million contract doesn’t get tendered without the SEC logo painted on Kyle Field.

While A&M made an early splash when Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy in 2012 and Texas A&M ended the year ranked No. 5, head coach Kevin Sumlin never reached those heights again and could never quite break into the upper half of the SEC West. Fisher seems in position to do precisely that.

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While Texas A&M’s exploration of the SEC was more of a mutual courtship, Missouri played the role of a contestant on “The Bachelor” doing its best to get the red rose. By the fall of 2011, Colorado was in the Pac-12, Nebraska was in the Big Ten and Texas A&M had decided to leave for the SEC. The Big 12 was on shaky ground, to say the least.

“The Big 12 was such a mess at that time,” says Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger. “I don’t think Missouri can regret that move with the information it had in the moment. There was genuine fear that the Big 12 would just dissolve. When the most stable and richest league in the country invites you, it was a decision I don’t think anyone can fault them for making.”

Indeed, just two months after Texas A&M became the SEC’s 13th member, Missouri followed and left behind a Big 12 that was forced to add two teams (TCU, West Virginia) just to get to 10 members. Missouri was abandoning a football conference in which it was solidly competitive and a rivalry with Kansas that stirred passions for generations in both fan bases.

“Kansas can be mad at Mizzou, and it is, but it would have done the same thing,” Mellinger says.

Predictions about Missouri’s inability to compete in SEC football proved to be incorrect, or at least premature. Under Gary Pinkel, who had Missouri ranked No. 1 in the nation late in the 2007 season, the Tigers won back-to-back SEC East titles in 2013 and 2014, posting two straight 7–1 regular-season SEC records.

You would think that big-time recruiting success logically would have followed, once the Tigers had proved that they could win in the nation’s toughest conference, but that wasn’t the case. The 2015 class was ranked No. 25 (which was only good enough for 12th in the SEC), and then the three classes after that all came in at No. 43. Missouri has never ranked higher than 11th in the SEC in recruiting since it joined the conference, and its average national ranking in the 10 cycles since joining the SEC has actually dropped from No. 34 in its final 10 cycles as a member of the Big 12 to No. 38.

One factor in Missouri’s inability to capitalize on its early success in the SEC was a series of on-campus protests in the fall of 2015 centered around racial unrest. The football players boycotted team activities and threatened to skip a game against BYU in support of graduate student Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike. Butler wanted school president Tim Wolfe to resign, mostly due to his inaction in improving the racial climate on campus. Wolfe did resign shortly thereafter, and Missouri did not forfeit its game against BYU, but the incident, coupled with Pinkel’s resignation due to a cancer diagnosis, set the football program back.

“The boycott at Missouri greatly impacted recruiting,” Mandel says. “That was a very high-profile situation. It gave you the impression, rightly or wrongly, that there were real racism issues on campus.”

Missouri’s move to the SEC seems to have affected its recruiting footprint. Whereas the Tigers averaged eight players from Texas per recruiting class in its final 10 cycles in the Big 12, that number has dropped to four per class since 2012. It appears that leaving a Big 12 schedule that featured several Texas-based schools per season has closed the door on recruiting Texas to a certain extent, although second-year coach Eliah Drinkwitz says he will be focused on the Dallas area, among others, moving forward.

“I don’t know how much of a factor (scheduling) is in recruiting,” Drinkwitz says. “I don’t know that I’ve ever talked to a young man about, ‘We’re going to be playing in the state of Texas.’ It is more about the availability of travel. Every game is on TV.

“For me, as I’m starting out, I’m drawing a circle around the school that can be reached with a gas tank to try to get people on campus, and then you look at the direct flights into the city, and for us, we have direct flights into Columbia [Mo.] from Dallas and Chicago, which gives us more accessibility than maybe Atlanta or Alabama.
“If I’m in Atlanta, I don’t know that my best selling point is we are going to play at Georgia, Florida, South Carolina or Tennessee every other year. It is more about giving them a unique on-campus experience.”

While Missouri’s revenue from the SEC has certainly risen from its Big 12 days, the athletic department has not seen the dramatic spike in donations that Texas A&M has. Using the Knight Commission’s statistics, Missouri’s athletics department is actually in slightly worse shape financially due to its increase in expenses, with the department operating at a loss in the final two years for which data is available (2017, 2018). Expenses have essentially increased at roughly the same rate as income.

On the field, Mizzou has not posted a winning SEC record, won a bowl game or finished nationally ranked since 2014.

So with recruiting flat, net revenue slightly down and a won-loss record that has dipped overall, has the SEC experience been a success at Missouri as it enters Year 10?

“If they are struggling for the next 10 years, then maybe you can say the SEC was too hard,” Mandel says. “For now, I’m finding it hard to separate the significance of Gary Pinkel leaving, plus the campus boycott, and them changing conferences.”

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On Oct. 16, Texas A&M will visit Missouri for just the second time since they became SEC partners. Missouri enters 2021 with legit hopes of a bowl game and a possible No. 3 finish in the SEC East behind Georgia and Florida. Quarterback Connor Bazelak showed promise as a redshirt freshman last season with a 67 percent completion rate in 10 starts, and the defense has almost all of its playmakers back.

“What gets me extremely excited about our team is we have a solidified quarterback, and we have some returning defensive linemen who have played a significant amount in the league and played well at times,” Drinkwitz says. “This is a trench-based league, so if you have a good quarterback and some solid defensive linemen, you have a chance to compete.”

Texas A&M is coming off an Orange Bowl victory over North Carolina and a 9–1 season. Its final ranking of No. 4 was its highest since 1939, and only a loss to Alabama prevented the Aggies from landing in their first college football playoff. With three straight top-10 recruiting classes, the pieces are in place.

“If there is anyone in the West right now to challenge Alabama, [the Aggies] are best positioned to,” Thamel says. “They have a lot of talent coming back on defense. They have the best defensive coordinator in the league [Mike Elko]. And this is the manifestation of Jimbo and his recruiting there. There are a lot of reasons for optimism there that haven’t been there at any other time.”

Indeed, those fans who blissfully celebrated Texas A&M’s dive into deeper waters in 2011 are having their optimism validated before their eyes.

“We got a chance to be good this year,” Fisher says. “And for a long time to come.”

— Written by Bill Trocchi (@BillTrocchi) for Athlon Sports' 2021 SEC Football Magazine.