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July 21, 2012

What's in SEC's future?

"For time and the world do not stand still. Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future."

- John F. Kennedy in his "Address in the Assembly Hall at the Paulskirche in Frankfurt (Germany") June 25, 1963

HOOVER | The 35th president of the United States certainly wasn't speaking of conference expansion, television contracts or playoffs. Nevertheless, his wise words remain as insightfully applicable today as they did then to any organization wishing to remain in the forefront of its field.

The Southeastern Conference has never been afraid to look to the future. In 1992, then-commissioner Roy Kramer expanded the league to 12 teams and instituted a revolutionary conference championship game. Twenty years later current commissioner Mike Slive oversaw another round of expansion, extending the league's footprint to add Missouri and Texas A&M.

Looking forward: What does the SEC look like in 2022? Are Oklahoma or North Carolina State members of the SEC? Will there be four divisions? How many households subscribe to the soon-to-come SEC Network? Does the conference still reside in Birmingham, or does Atlanta steal it away?

"Well, I hope it looks like it looks today," Slive said. "You know, things will change, there will be different issues, different opportunities, and our goal is to make sure that we're prepared for whatever comes.

"I've talked often about this being a golden age for us, and it really is in many ways both on and off the field. Now things could change in a heartbeat, and that's why I keep talking about being vigilant and being careful and being smart about what we do and how we do it."

Slive emphatically and repeatedly has said the league is not in an expansionist mode. But with the landscape of college football changing as rapidly as it ever has, is it really out of the realm of possibility?

Tony Barnhart is one of the most respected voices in college football, known across the Southeast as Mr. College Football. He said there are changes coming to the conference.

"There will be an SEC Network and a nine-game conference schedule, possibly in as soon as two to three years," Barnhart said. "Then the question becomes, 'What's the ceiling on expansion?'

"I don't think it's a given that it goes to 16. The SEC gets a lot of what they want at 14 by expanding the footprint and adding value to its television contract. And with two more teams, scheduling becomes even more difficult. But if I had to bet if they go to 16, I would probably say yes.

"To me, you have to go up the eastern seaboard. But if Texas and Oklahoma pick up the phone you'd have to listen, wouldn't you?"

Barnhart was among the first to report that the SEC would expand to 14 teams.

"I thought it was the natural progression," Barnhart said. "As TV contracts grew you were going to have to expand. The SEC wanted to expand to add value to its television contract and to expand the footprint of the conference. Slive has always been a very forward-thinking guy. He told me, 'You can never just focus on the present, you have to look down the road.'"

The 2009 season was the first of two lucrative television contracts the SEC signed, agreeing to a 15-year, $2.25 billion deal with ESPN and a separate 15-year, $825 million deal with CBS. Don't be surprised if a SEC Network isn't the next deal to be struck.

Slive alluded to as much in his opening remarks at SEC Media Days.

"Moving to the future. In the play The Tempest, Shakespeare wrote simply, 'What is past is prologue,' and that's apropos here. We are venturing into a new era filled with opportunities, some of which we recognize and some we won't. In terms of expansion and television, this gives us an opportunity to reexamine our television plans.

"There has been a whole lot of speculation about Project X. Is it still a secret? I don't think so. But we now call it Project SEC. Our objective long term to work with our television partner to provide fans with greater access to favored teams, more opportunities to watch rivals, and more insight into who we are: a conference of 14 great universities."

The SEC recently signed an extension with the city of Birmingham to remain headquartered in the Magic City. But will the league still be there in 2022?

Atlanta and Nashville have courted the SEC before and are sure to make overtures in the future. The city of Birmingham is doing its part to keep the league happy.

The SEC offices, located downtown on Richard Arrington Blvd., are undergoing an extensive renovation. The conference declined to give specifics of how much it will cost, but a Birmingham city official said it was a "seven-figure renovation."

Alabama coach Nick Saban said as long as the SEC continues its strong tradition of leadership, he isn't worried about the future.

"I will say that I think Mike Slive and the leadership we have in the SEC has been fantastic in terms of whether it's the kind of TV package that we've had to maximize the league's exposure, which I think has enhanced the quality of play in all sports, the foresight that we've had, some of these issues, whether it's how many players we're allowed to sign, the foresight that we've had in a four team playoff on how it would affect college football in a positive way, how we implement that," he said.

"I think our league has been at the forefront from a leadership standpoint, and that's why the quality of this league has sort of sustained success over time. I don't see any reason why it wouldn't continue to do that if we continue to have the same quality of leadership that Commissioner Slive and his staff has offered us."


Reach Aaron Suttles at Aaron@TideSports.com or at 205-722-0229.


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