Clemson didn’t look like an ACC football team in the 1980s — not like Steve Spurrier, who was an assistant at Duke and later its coach during that decade. The Tigers won the ACC five times in the 1980s.
“When I coached at Duke, Clemson was basically like an SEC school in the ACC,” Spurrier said. “This was before FSU, Syracuse and Virginia Tech (joined the ACC). When you played Clemson, they looked like SEC guys.”
Spurrier’s tenure at South Carolina came to mind when I asked him if Clemson would be a good fit for the SEC if the conference desired more expansion. Spurrier’s time with the Gamecocks overlapped with the ascension of rival Clemson under Dabo Swinney.
But the Clemson head coach’s careful study of integrity dates back to Danny Ford, who led the Tigers to their first national championship in 1981.
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“Their defensive guys were a little bigger, a little faster,” Spurrier said of the Clemson teams of the 1980s. “They just lined up and tried to crush you. That was their style of attack.
“They can certainly slide right into the SEC.”
Decades later, the Tigers still fit the SEC’s profile.
Conference realignment and expansion are ingrained in college sports. While Spurrier coached Florida, the SEC added Arkansas and South Carolina. Spurrier particularly approved of this round of expansion, which allowed the SEC to split into divisions and host a conference championship game. Missouri and Texas A&M joined the league while Spurrier was at South Carolina.
The SEC will grow to 16 teams by 2025 with the addition of Oklahoma and Texas, and the Big Ten will oppose Southern Cal and UCLA in 2024.
The SEC and Big Ten are aided by industry-leading media rights deals.
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While the Big Ten hasn’t let geography get in the way of their expansion drive — the conference will stretch from Piscataway, N.J., to Los Angeles — the SEC has mostly stuck to its Southern brand.
Clemson and Florida State are two ACC programs that would fit that culture.
The SEC looked at FSU during its expansion in the early 1990s, but the Seminoles chose the ACC, leaving an SEC spot for the Gamecocks.
Spurrier’s Gators annually faced Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles as two of the premier programs of the 1990s.
FSU would then fit into the SEC.
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“I guess it remains to be seen if FSU can get back to those days with Bobby Bowden,” Spurrier said. “From ’87 to 2000, they were in the top four or five in the nation every year, 14 years in a row there. That’s quite a win. I don’t know if they can go back to that again.”
Of course, football pedigree isn’t the only element driving the realignment.
UCLA and USC will find richer pay in the Big Ten. Ditto for OU and Texas in the SEC. Meanwhile, these conferences will expand their reach and increase their audience.
While the riches of the SEC and Big Ten are a gravitational pull for schools flirting with change, Spurrier wonders about the effect on the ground. He questions how perennial Big 12 champion Oklahoma will fare in the SEC.
“I thought Oklahoma made a mistake,” Spurrier said, “but the people of Oklahoma are saying, ‘We can play in the SEC. We’re not afraid of these guys.” Time will tell.”
The ACC houses schools that should be attractive to the SEC or Big Ten, but the conference avoids being robbed. It helps to have a franchise deal that runs through 2036, creating a steep hurdle for any ACC school willing to exit. Leaving the ACC now could cost a member school hundreds of millions.
Aside from Notre Dame, Clemson is the top football brand that is not a current or future member of the SEC or Big Ten, and the Tigers command a strong television audience.
However, Clemson may not top the SEC’s wish list even if an ACC franchise deal doesn’t stand in the way.
The SEC has used previous expansions to methodically expand its footprint in neighboring states while clinging to its well-crafted Southern identity. Using that as a guide, the SEC might favor North Carolina, Virginia Tech or Virginia — the SEC doesn’t include a school from any state — over the Tigers.
In terms of cultural fit and football product, though, there wouldn’t be a better catch for the SEC than Clemson. It’s been that way for years.
Blake Topmeier is the SEC columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.