Are Texas and Oklahoma ready for the SEC?

Alabama was already on Steve Sarkisian’s mind. So were LSU and Georgia.

But not necessarily within the framework of the SEC.

During the process of being hired as Texas coach three and a half years ago, Sarkisian laid out his vision of what it would take to make the Longhorns a national power again to the school’s administration — university president Jay Hartzell, board of regents chair Kevin Eltife and athletic director Chris Del Conte. Sarkisian cut straight to the point.

He’d spent the previous two seasons (2019 and 2020) as Alabama’s offensive coordinator. The Crimson Tide won the national championship in 2020, and LSU won it the year before, both finishing their title seasons undefeated.

“We need to build a team that come January can beat Alabama, LSU and Georgia, and I’d throw in Ohio State and Clemson, too, because those are the teams that in some shape or form are in the playoff just about every year,” Sarkisian told his new bosses on the Forty Acres. “We can’t get enamored with just building a team to win the Big 12. We’re going to have to build a team that can take down Alabama in January. I’m not talking September, but in January be equipped to beat those teams you’re going to have to beat to win a national championship.”

Little did Sarkisian know at the time that more change was on the horizon for Texas, the SEC and the college sports landscape in general.

“Shoot, it wasn’t five months later they come to me and tell me, ‘We’re moving to the SEC,'” Sarkisian said with a laugh.

His only response: “When?”

That “when” is Monday, July 1, when Texas and Oklahoma officially become the newest members of the SEC in all sports. But the real “when” comes this fall when the Longhorns and Sooners join the country’s toughest, deepest and most successful football conference, a league that has produced 13 of the past 20 national champions — 14 if you include Texas’ title in 2005 when the Longhorns were in the Big 12.

And when you throw in Oklahoma, which won it all in 2000, eight teams that will play in the SEC this fall have won national championships over the past three decades.

While the excitement about the move has been building for three years, both schools recognize it comes with significant challenges, not that they’re backing away from them.

The word Sooners coach Brent Venables uses to describe the SEC is “unforgiving.” As Clemson’s defensive coordinator from 2012 to 2021, Venables had success against SEC offenses. The Tigers were 16-7 against SEC foes during that span, and in 11 of those games, Venables’ defense held the opposing offense to fewer than 20 points.

Entering his third year at OU, Venables has been studying SEC teams since the 2023 season concluded. What has stuck out to him is how many of the league’s games are decided late in the fourth quarter.

“Everything matters. There’s a very small margin for error,” Venables said. “There are so many things that decide games in this league, and you better be ready for all of them. How ready are we? We’re going to find out. Until you’re in the middle of it, you don’t really truly know. So it would just be conjecture on my part. As I said, we’ll find out.

“What I do know is the challenge of it all, the depth of the teams in that conference, and what I feel best about is the depth of the investment that we have from our players, several of them going on their third year here.”

Among those players who are all-in is linebacker Danny Stutsman, a leader of the defense who is entering his fourth year with the Sooners.

“We’re hungry, man,” he said. “Hearing all that, the talk about the SEC, it gets brought up every single day. At some point, you realize that the best is the standard for us. That doesn’t change.

“The SEC is just three letters. It doesn’t really change our mindset of how we approach things. We’re going to prepare every single game the exact same way no matter who the opponent is. Obviously, it’s better competition in some ways, but when you consider yourself the best, you prepare like that every single week.”

JUST ABOUT ANYONE who has ever coached or played in the SEC references a similar theme when asked what makes the league different: the ability to recruit and develop quality depth in the line of scrimmage and create the kind of competition on the practice field that makes games almost seem easy.

“I think back to that offensive line we had at Alabama in 2020,” Sarkisian said. “We had great skill people, too, but having the guys we had up front, the number of them, was something you just don’t see very often. I know that’s where we have worked so diligently here. It wasn’t so much the defensive line when I got here, but the offensive line. We had to do a complete makeover.”

Another aspect frequently mentioned is the grind of playing in the SEC and the need to make it to November and December with the core of your team intact while also having second-team players capable of stepping up when starters go down.

In April, the SEC led all conferences in NFL draft picks (59) for the 18th straight year. Thirteen of the league’s 14 teams had at least one player chosen by an NFL team.

“When I talk about beating those teams late in the year, that’s why I say it,” said Sarkisian, who led Texas to its first College Football Playoff appearance last season. “You’re going to have to withstand the grind of a season and then beat those teams when it counts if you want to win a national championship.

“The good thing for us is that the plan to build this roster really didn’t have to change from what the initial plan was. We knew the road to winning a national championship was going to go through Alabama, Georgia and those teams.

“Now you might have to go through them more than once.”

History suggests that championships could be few and far between for the two SEC newbies, although the playoff moving from four to 12 teams this season should make opportunities more plentiful. Under the new format, the SEC could be in position to get four teams — or even more — into the postseason every year.

The four schools to join the SEC in its previous two expansions — Arkansas and South Carolina in 1992 and Missouri and Texas A&M in 2012 — are still looking for their first conference championship, although none of them came to the league with the recent success and pedigree of Texas and Oklahoma. None of the four have played in the BCS national championship game or made the playoff since joining the league. And while there were some rocky beginnings, there also have been some breakthroughs.

Missouri played in the SEC championship game in its second and third years in the league under Gary Pinkel. Texas A&M has had the most consistent success among the four, with 11 winning seasons in 12 years, but only three winning records in SEC play.

Since that first expansion in 1992, only six schools have won an SEC title — Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU and Tennessee. Alabama has won 10 of the last 25 titles, LSU five, Georgia four, Florida three and Auburn three.

Even so, it’s hard to find a school in the league, with perhaps a couple of exceptions, that doesn’t think it should at least be flirting with double-digit wins every season.

As Venables surveyed the SEC, now from within the league, he used Auburn’s team from last season as an example of how narrow the margin can be between playing for a championship and simply playing to have a winning season.

“You look at a team like Auburn, and they were 6-7 last year, but they take a No. 1 Georgia team to the last drive of the game and rush for more than 200 yards, and then late in the year, Alabama throws a Hail Mary in the end zone to beat them,” he said. “Those are two games that sort of tell you what the SEC is. Auburn played really close games against the two teams that played for the SEC championship, and Alabama made the playoff. Auburn finished somewhere in the middle of the conference.

“I’ve never been in a league where you’ve got to play the depth of the teams we will every single week. You don’t concede anything, but in the same breath, you have tremendous respect for what it’s going to take to be successful.”

For OU athletic director Joe Castiglione, that includes Venables. Oklahoma has been working on strategies to make the transition as seamless as possible, including giving the coach a new six-year, $51.6 million contract last month that will pay him an average of $8.6 million per year, a move that Castiglione said was part of being “SEC ready.”

AS AN ATHLETIC director, Del Conte has to consider all of his program’s sports, and he is quick to point out that Texas has won 15 national championships in the past three years.

“I think we’re equipped in every way when you look at our overall athletic program, and I know our fans are excited,” Del Conte said. “There’s been an overwhelming unification.”

And, yes, Del Conte is prepared for the inevitable “Horns Down” gestures every time Texas walks into an opposing SEC stadium for the first time, a move mocking the “Hook ’em” signs flashed by Texas fans.

Del Conte says to bring it on.

“I love all that, by the way, the Horns Down stuff. I think it’s comedy,” he said.

On the field, Del Conte said he has consistently told his athletes that “whoever you play, it’s their Super Bowl. It’s the power of the brand.”

“That won’t change in the SEC,” he added.

One of the many things about moving to the SEC that was so enticing to Texas, according to Del Conte, was being able to renew rivalries with Arkansas and Texas A&M. Plus, the Longhorns didn’t lose their annual showdown with Oklahoma.

The Sooners, however, will lose their Bedlam rivalry game with Oklahoma State for the foreseeable future. Castiglione said there are still conversations between the schools, but that the first realistic chance for them to play again in football (because of signed contracts on both sides with other nonconference opponents) would be sometime in the 2030s.

Castiglione, who has been OU’s athletic director since 1998 and was Missouri’s AD for 5½ years before that, said the move to the SEC became more feasible as the landscape around the sport shifted.

“I wouldn’t have envisioned it 20 years ago. But 10 years ago? Yes,” Castiglione said. “That’s not to sound cavalier like I could predict it, but you could see how everything was developing.”

For Texas, the move could have come much sooner. Harvey Schiller, the SEC commissioner from 1986 to 1989, told ESPN last month that Texas would have been part of the SEC’s first wave of expansion, along with Arkansas, in 1992 had it not been for the Texas state legislature mandating that the SEC also add Texas A&M if it were to bring the Longhorns aboard. Schiller left to become executive director of the U.S. Olympic Committee and was replaced as SEC commissioner in January 1990 by Roy Kramer, who moved SEC expansion across the finish line.

Asked if Texas joining the SEC was a done deal had the politicians not gotten involved, Schiller said emphatically, “The answer is yes. The conference wanted it. Texas wanted it.”

Schiller said the SEC wasn’t as interested in Texas A&M at the time and that A&M officials also had some issues with a move to the SEC.

“Interestingly enough, Texas A&M ended up being the first of the two schools [in Texas] to join the SEC in 2012,” Schiller said. “Now, some 30 years later, I guess they finally got it right.”

Venables could have already been in the SEC, but he passed on taking the Auburn head job after Gus Malzahn was fired following the 2020 season. He wasn’t convinced the alignment at Auburn was what it needed to be to navigate the SEC at an elite level. Sarkisian passed on the Mississippi State job following the 2019 season.

Oklahoma makes its SEC debut Sept. 21 at home against Tennessee. Texas doesn’t wade into SEC play until Sept. 28 at home against Mississippi State. The rivals play each other in Dallas on Oct. 12.

Of the two, Oklahoma looks to have the more perilous schedule within the league. The Sooners play six teams in ESPN’s latest preseason Top 25 rankings, with four of those games away from home.

Texas faces Georgia at home Oct. 19, the week after playing Oklahoma. Georgia hasn’t lost a regular-season game since the 2020 COVID season, when the SEC played a 10-game, all-SEC schedule.

The Longhorns went to Tuscaloosa in Week 2 last season and beat Alabama 34-24, snapping the Crimson Tide’s 21-game home winning streak.

The move from the Big 12 clearly is a step up for the schools, but one Oklahoma and Texas fans, players and administrators are ready to embrace — both on and off the field.

“We’re at the University of Texas. People don’t like us. You learn to embrace the hate,” Texas senior defensive back Jahdae Barron said. “It’s a new day for us in the SEC. We’re the first team to do it at Texas. It’s always something you want, to be in those history books, and that’s what we’re working toward right now, to get in those history books.

“We want to be remembered forever.”

Oklahoma quarterback Jackson Arnold lived the first part of his childhood just outside Atlanta in Suwanee, Georgia, before moving to Texas.

“I grew up a Georgia fan. All my friends were either Georgia or Tennessee fans,” said Arnold, a sophomore. “I grew up around the SEC and watched all those games.”

Aaron Murray was Arnold’s favorite quarterback, and Arnold remembers watching Murray engineer a fourth-quarter comeback with three touchdown passes in 2013, only to see Auburn break Georgia’s hearts (and his) on Nick Marshall’s miraculous 73-yard tipped touchdown pass to Ricardo Louis on fourth-and-18 with 25 seconds left.

“It was like that every week it seemed,” Arnold said. “There’s something special about playing in a conference you grew up dreaming of playing in. I know how super tough and hard-nosed the SEC is, but we’re ready to establish our own presence. You have to if you’re going to succeed in the SEC.”

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