Handicapping Texas AM's SEC Success

Just about everything that needed to be said about Texas A&M’s departure for the SEC was laid out beautifully in two posts by Taylor T Room. Those posts remind me why I’m glad the Aggies are leaving and have optimism they’re en route to another pratfall.

I am so happy the Aggies are going you’d think the Big 12 was losing Kansas State – a school that actually has a negative effect on Texas’ won-loss total.

But enough of the celebrating. My purpose in plucking the dead horse mallet off the wall and taking aim at this rotting carcass is to address one aspect of the "will the rising tide of the SEC lift all boats, even A&M’s?" line of reasoning. The aspect of which I speak is how have previous schools joining the SEC fared? Previous discussions have centered on Arkansas, with Aggie proponents citing how SEC membership will shift the balance of power for recruiting Texas high school players while skeptics point to Arkansas’ perceived struggles in the SEC. What I haven’t seen discussed much is the plight of South Carolina, which to me is a better control case than Arkansas.

Sure, Arkansas and Texas A&M were conference neighbors in the old SWC. And they both shared the same fertile recruiting grounds. But here’s where South Carolina comes in to play. The Gamecocks share the same recruiting turf with an in-state arch-rival, Clemson. And like the Aggies, the Gamecocks have historically had the short end of the stick. Has 20 years of SEC membership enabled South Carolina to gain ground on its chief in-state rival? Is this a case study that could give the Aggies hope?

Before looking at the numbers, it’s worth noting a few differences. First, the recruiting grounds for these two rivalries are world’s apart. Also, South Carolina hasn’t been conference mates with Clemson since 1970 when the Gamecocks bolted the Atlantic Coast Conference.

So how has South Carolina fared? In a nutshell, the program has improved but it has only gained microscopic ground on Clemson. From a wins and losses perspective there’s not much to see. In the 30 years before joining the SEC, South Carolina won 49.2 percent of its games, going 158-163-10. In the Gamecocks’ 20 years of the SEC, they’ve won 50.2 percent of their games, going 118-117-1.

However, there are a couple of places where progress can be measured. First, the Gamecocks have played a stronger schedule in the SEC than they did in the ACC or as an independent. Also, their bowl performance has jumped from abysmal to average. Before the SEC, they were 0-7 in an array of mid-tier bowls:

1969 Peach Bowl - West Virginia: L 14-3
1975 Champs Sports Bowl - Miami, Ohio: L 20-7
1979 Hall of Fame Bowl - Missouri: L 24-14
1980 Gator Bowl – Pittsburgh: L 37-9
1984 Gator Bowl - Oklahoma State: L 21-14
1987 Gator Bowl – LSU: L 30-13
1988 Liberty Bowl – Indiana: L 34-10

Contrast that performance with their 4-4 bowl record in the last 20 years:

1994 Carquest Bowl - West Virginia: W 24-21
2000 Outback Bowl - Ohio State: W 24-7
2001 Outback Bowl - Ohio State: W 31-28
2005 Independence Bowl - Missouri: L 38-31
2006 Liberty Bowl - Houston: W 44-36
2008 Outback Bowl - Iowa: L 31-10
2009 BBVA Compass Bowl - Connecticut: L 20-7
2010 Chick Fil A Bowl - Florida State: L 26-17

The Gamecocks also played another post-season game in 2010, losing the SEC championship to eventual national champion Auburn 56-17.

But what about the head-to-head against Clemson?

Despite South Caroline hiring a couple of high profile coaches (Lou Holtz, Steve Spurrier), the Gamecocks’ aggregate numbers are . . . well . . . not much different:

Pre-SEC: South Carolina 32 wins, Clemson 53 wins, 4 ties

SEC Era: South Carolina 8 wins, Clemson 12 wins

So after 20 years, all South Carolina has to show is that its winning percentage against Clemson rose from 38.2 to 38.5 percent, a whopping three-tenths of one percent. At this pace, South Carolina will pull even in the series in 766 years, provided my math is good.

However, there is good reason to think that pace is changing, as the Gamecocks have won the last three meetings convincingly: 34-17, 29-7 and 34-13. In some respects, this series is becoming reminiscent of how Spurrier flipped the Georgia-Florida series while coaching the Gators. Prior to the three-game streak, Clemson had won 12 of 17 meetings SEC-era meetings, with the most puzzling stretch coming while Tommy Bowden coached Clemson. Somehow, Bowden had a better record against South Carolina (7-2) than he did against Wake Forest (7-3). Bowden was 5-1 against Holtz, and 2-1 vs. Spurrier.

It has already been discussed here how Arkansas’ national reputation has diminished since joining the SEC. Between 1960 and 1982, the Hogs finished in the AP top 10 11 times, basically every other year. They haven’t had a top 10 finish since then. That may change at the end of the month as Arkansas is currently ranked seventh in two polls and can ensure a top 10 finish by beating Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl. It will be only Arkansas’ fifth season to finish ranked as an SEC member.

So that brings me full circle back to A&M. Most of the positive signs for the two most recent entrants to the SEC have occurred in the last few years, nearly two decades into their membership. If indeed joining the SEC lifts the Texas A&M program past Texas in national stature, the historic pattern suggests it will be a while. Certainly, any movement toward in-state superiority would be preceded by a reversal of current recruiting trends. However, if Clemson, an ag school in the ACC, hasn’t ceded its superiority to an SEC rival, I’m hopeful a regular contender in the Big 12 might similarly maintain its position.

And if Texas and Texas A&M do not renew their series nor meet in a bowl game, here’s how I will measure the Aggies’ progress. If they have five or six games each year with an 11 a.m. CT kickoff and Pam Ward handling play-by-play, they’ll be right where I want them.

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