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SEC should keep its foot on the clutch

It's strange to see the SEC take a cautious stance in conference expansion talks.

After all, this is the conference that was years ahead of everyone else in splitting into divisions and staging the cash cow known as a football championship game. The SEC plays in the biggest stadiums, is in the second year of a $3 billion TV deal and has produced the past four national champions in football.

Yet SEC commissioner Mike Slive and the schools' presidents appear content to stay on the sideline -- initially, anyway -- to see how expansion in the Big Ten and Pac-10 shakes out.

Florida president Bernie Machen said last week at the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla., that the league would be "reactive, not proactive" on expansion. That said, Slive will be prepared to shift from reactive to proactive mode in less than six seconds.

He better keep his foot on the clutch.

While college baseball continues its progression toward Omaha, the College World Series is in danger of getting swallowed by the mother of all summer stories. It no longer seems a question of if the Big Ten and Pac-10 will put the Big 12 out of business, but when.

Notre Dame could keep Big Ten expansion from getting messy, although the Fighting Irish long ago established they'd rather take their ball and NBC contract and go home than play nice with their geographic rivals. So it's safe to assume Notre Dame resists the Big Ten's come-ons.

But what about Nebraska and Missouri, who reportedly have been given deadlines by the Big 12 to tell the conference whether they're leaving?

Missouri is said to be eager to find a conference with an equal revenue-sharing plan, while ESPN.com reported that Nebraska athletics director Tom Osborne met with Ohio State coach Jim Tressel in April (presumably not about their shared love of red sweaters).

Should Nebraska and Missouri bolt for the Big Ten, the "paradigm shift" Slive talked about will be breaking out all over the country. Rather than stay in a watered-down Big 12, Texas opts for the Pac-10, taking Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Baylor or Colorado with it to form a Pacific Southwest Division.

Meanwhile, the Big Ten goes after a couple of Big East schools to apply pressure to Notre Dame, which risks losing its conference home for every sport but football if the Big East is raided.

Say the Pac-10 and Big Ten become the Pac-16 and Big 16 when the dust settles. Does the SEC stand pat at 12 teams? Not likely.

"Our plan A is status quo. We like our 12-team league. And if dominos don't fall, we're sitting pretty," South Carolina president Harris Pastides said. "If dominos start to fall, we need to be positioned in a way that advantages the league."

Like everything else, the SEC's decision will come down to money. With the Pac-10 seemingly set to follow the Big Ten's lead in launching its own TV network, the SEC's best bet to boost revenues would be to expand and re-open the bidding for its TV rights.

How does the nation's best football conference get better -- and more attractive -- to TV execs? Slive's first call has to go to Texas, and then to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

But if that Texas-Oklahoma train already has left the station heading west, Slive will go after the best football programs within the SEC's footprint. That means Virginia Tech, Florida State, Miami, Georgia Tech and Clemson.

Virginia's governor made sure Virginia Tech didn't get left out when the ACC expanded, so there may be too many political ties binding the Hokies.

Inviting schools from states where the SEC has a foothold does not add new TV markets. But unless the SEC plans to revisit starting its own network, tapping into new markets is not vital. With its ESPN and CBS deals, most of the SEC's games are on in every market already.

"We're the most widely distributed conference in the country. ... So we don't need to get larger for purposes of distribution," Slive said. "Everyone has to look at their own elements, but that's not something that would cause us to expand."

Slive wants the SEC to remain the nation's preeminent football conference. But the former attorney also is mindful of the bottom line.

And if Slive can increase revenues while cutting the pie into 16 pieces, he's going to do it.

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