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The Case for Clemson: Why the Tigers Should Be the 14th SEC Team

A "high-ranking SEC official" told the Sporting News' Matt Hayes that "every option is on the table now". Presumably that means any kind of gentleman's agreement about not taking schools from current SEC states is off.

Year2 (September 19, 2011)

Today, as fate would have it, is the anniversary of the birth of Mike Floyd, a Spartanburg, S.C., native and University of Georgia alumnus who acquired no small measure of notoriety 20 years ago for his contribution to what then remained one of the most heated rivalries in all of college football. Just prior to the 1991 gridiron clash between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Clemson Tigers, the student newspapers on the respective campuses exchanged columns, with the words of Tiger sports editor Geoff Wilson appearing in The Red and Black, and Floyd’s contribution being published in the Fort Hill paper.

Floyd’s blistering takedown of Clemson’s lack of national tradition started a firestorm in the Palmetto State, as several Greenville and Spartanburg radio stations read his column on the air, prompting angry calls to local drive-time shows and threats phoned in to Mike’s father, John, who lived in Spartanburg and was warned to "watch his house tonight." The game that followed, a 27-12 Red and Black victory between the hedges that snapped a three-game series losing streak to the Country Gentlemen on October 5, 1991, was one of the classics in the storied rivalry.

The struggle we traditionalists have had with the prospect of SEC expansion is what it does to the heritage we love. While the addition of the Arkansas Razorbacks and the South Carolina Gamecocks nearly two decades ago has worked out spectacularly well, there were casualties. Yes, Georgia resumed its annual affrays with the Palmetto State Poultry, a longstanding out-of-conference opponent, in divisional play, but ersatz rivalries were concocted out of next to nothing, while such established series as the Auburn Tigers’ regular tussles with the Florida Gators and the Tennessee Volunteers went by the wayside. Similar sacrifices certainly will be made as the era of the superconference dawns.

This puts the SEC in a particularly precarious position, as the Texas A&M Aggies boast the only program that makes complete cultural, financial, and geographic sense in a process that is driven by money but must at least pay lip service to sanity and tradition. The most natural fits for the expanded league evidently were disqualified from the outset, due to the widely-rumored but never confirmed "gentleman’s agreement" between Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, and South Carolina. This gentleman’s agreement, assuming it existed, was approximately as absurd as our jury system’s penchant for immediately ousting from the pool the most educated prospective jurors; booting as a matter of course the candidates who make the most logical sense is not the way to grow the brand . . . which is why we found ourselves talking realistically about such far-fetched contenders as the Missouri Tigers, Virginia Tech Hokies, and West Virginia Mountaineers.

Though I can’t stand the thought that Mike Slive may have been outmaneuvered by the ACC, I was pleased to read the passage penned by Year2 quoted at the outset of this posting. When it at long last appeared that the rumors were more than merely rumors, my immediate reaction was: I want us to get Clemson, no matter how illogical that reaction may be, and, beyond that, I knew only that I was going to be ticked if Texas A&M’s reported entry into the conference in 2012 caused the cancellation of Georgia’s scheduled series with Clemson in 2013 and 2014.

Clemson, of course, could not be a more perfect fit for the SEC in terms of location or folkways. The Tigers have longstanding rivalries with their two nearest SEC East neighbors, Georgia and South Carolina; they have historic ties to Alabama (Frank Howard, Danny Ford, Dabo Swinney) and Auburn (Walter Riggs, John Heisman); a rivalry between Clemson and LSU---between the Tigers from Death Valley and the Tigers from Death Valley---would be a natural. The Aggies and the Jungaleers could be paired as annual inter-division rivals without upsetting the existing order too much. Clemson has the look and feel of an SEC school already, so much so that, when the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets left the league in the 1960s, Georgia counted a couple of clashes with Clemson as conference games. To be blunt, having Clemson in the SEC makes more sense than having either Arkansas or South Carolina in the SEC.

The Tigers’ problem is that familiarity has bred contempt, at least from the standpoint of the marketplace: Clemson cannot deliver a new media market, the way Texas A&M can and Missouri, Virginia Tech, or West Virginia might (though probably wouldn’t). Still, expansion has less to do with the size of the market near the team than with the size of the team in the market, which is why the Florida St. Seminoles, despite residing squarely within the existing SEC footprint, are a strong candidate, because the Tribe’s long-established national brand (though tarnished by the experience of recent seasons) makes FSU a commodity capable of luring eyeballs to television sets from locales far outside the Sunshine State panhandle.

Of course, with all due respect to Mike Floyd, Clemson also had a previous national championship pedigree prior to faltering, just as Florida State did, and, while the Seminoles have been consistently good more recently than the Jungaleers, there’s something to be said for appealing to the sensibilities of my age demographic, which is more likely to have attained optimal income level than the younger age demographic that remembers Bobby Bowden, rather than Danny Ford, as the skipper of the ACC’s most dominant program. Also, not for nothing, but Clemson and Florida State both played arguably the best game of football either has played in more than a decade last Saturday . . . and the Tigers won.

On the all-important question of market penetration, let’s not overlook what Clemson can bring to the table. The Country Gentlemen’s appearance in the 2009 Gator Bowl produced a 58 per cent ratings increase over the previous year’s game, and, when Clemson squared off with Auburn in the 2007 Chick-fil-A Bowl, the resulting 5.09 rating represented the second-highest rating for a non-BCS bowl game that year. Clemson fields the ACC’s most popular football team and the country’s tenth most popular football team, which would make it the SEC’s fifth most popular football team (including Texas A&M). Without putting too fine a point on it, we’ve seen games between current Southeastern Conference clubs and the Orange and Purple generate considerable interest, as well. Simply stated, folks will watch Clemson play an SEC team; at a minimum, then, we ought to treat next Saturday’s showdown between the Seminoles and the Tigers as a league expansion play-in game.

Though I understand and respect Bill Connelly’s view that the Fort Hill Felines "are a bit less of a possibility now" that "ACC programs are off the table," I believe that, while the addition of the Pittsburgh Panthers and the Syracuse Orange solidifies the Atlantic Coast Conference as an AQ league, it does not solidify Clemson’s place in that league. Though they have improved on the hardwood in recent years, the Tigers sport a football-first program, and the ACC is a basketball-first conference. The earlier importation of Florida State, Miami, and Virginia Tech demonstrated a degree of devotion to the gridiron, but bringing in Pitt and Syracuse unmistakably represents a roundball-related realignment.

That matters to Clemson because football matters to Clemson, and because the Country Gentlemen’s view of the "Tobacco Road Mafia" of basketball-centered North Carolina-based schools has always left the Orange and Purple as the odd man out in a league whose value judgments have not aligned with those in Fort Hill since Frank Howard was complaining about the implementation of higher academic standards than those imposed by the NCAA. The ACC did nothing to endear itself to the Tiger faithful when adding extra sanctions to those handed down by the NCAA in the early 1980s, either.

The addition of Pitt and Syracuse, cold-weather schools that presently are far better at basketball than football, sends a signal that is being heard loud and clear in upstate South Carolina: The ACC values least the sports, football and baseball, that Clemson values most. Such decisions by the Big 12, which were viewed in Lincoln as consistently favoring Austin, ultimately drove the Nebraska Cornhuskers from the current iteration of the conference they had claimed for more than a century. Don’t think the Tigers wouldn’t be equally willing to abandon the ACC for a league whose priorities more closely match their own.

I freely admit that I am not impartial upon this point; I consider the Georgia-Clemson rivalry one of the most important in all of sports, and I have ulterior motives for wanting to see it rejoined. That said, the case for Clemson is airtight from a cultural and geographic perspective, and it is stronger than has been widely conceded from a financial standpoint, and, heck, the addition of Texas A&M might be enough of a boon to make a little bit of a loss leader financially feasible on the other side of the league. If, as Year2 reports, every option truly is on the table, there is no doubt that the SEC ought to extend its reach about an hour’s drive up I-85 from the Classic City to Lake Hartwell.

It may arrive a little late, but Mike Floyd deserves to receive as a birthday gift the resumption of the Georgia-Clemson rivalry as an annual SEC East battle. If the SEC must expand---and, at this point, there is no getting around the fact that it must---then the "gentleman’s agreement" be damned; invite the Country Gentlemen to join the conference. They want us. We want them. I don’t care what South Carolina wants, because, frankly, if we had bought the substance of South Carolina’s current argument against Clemson 20 years ago, we wouldn’t have invited South Carolina to join. Make it happen.

Go ‘Dawgs!