Is Clemson football a good fit for the SEC? Why Steve Spurrier says yes | Toppmeyer
Clemson didn’t resemble an ACC football team throughout the 1980s – not to Steve Spurrier, who was a Duke assistant and later its coach during that decade. The Tigers won the ACC five times in the '80s.
“When I coached at Duke, Clemson was actually like an SEC school in the ACC,” Spurrier told me this week. “That was before FSU, Syracuse and Virginia Tech (joined the ACC). When you played Clemson, they looked like SEC guys."
I had Spurrier’s South Carolina tenure in mind when I asked him whether Clemson would be a good fit for the SEC, if the conference desires more expansion. Spurrier’s time with the Gamecocks overlapped with rival Clemson’s ascent under Dabo Swinney.
But the Head Ball Coach’s up-close examination of Clemson’s bona fides dates to Danny Ford leading the Tigers to their first national championship in 1981.
"Their defensive guys were a little bit bigger, a little bit faster," Spurrier said of Clemson's '80s teams. "They just lined up and tried to smash you. That was their style of offense.
“They certainly could slide right into the SEC.”
Decades later, the Tigers still fit the SEC profile.
Conference realignment and expansion are ingrained in college sports. While Spurrier was Florida's coach, the SEC added Arkansas and South Carolina. Spurrier particularly approved of that 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 additions of Oklahoma and Texas, and the Big Ten will counter with Southern Cal and UCLA in 2024.
The SEC and Big Ten raids are aided by industry-leading media rights deals.
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While the Big Ten hasn't allowed geography to hinder its expansion quest – the conference will stretch from Piscataway, New Jersey, to Los Angeles – the SEC mostly has adhered to its Southern brand.
Clemson and Florida State are two ACC programs that would fit that culture.
The SEC eyed FSU during its early '90s expansion, but the Seminoles chose the ACC, leaving an SEC spot for the Gamecocks.
Spurrier's Gators annually clashed with Bobby Bowden's Seminoles as two of the marquee programs throughout the 1990s.
FSU would have fit in with the SEC then.
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“I guess it remains to be seen if FSU can return to those days with Bobby Bowden," Spurrier said. "From ’87 through 2000, they were in the top four or five in the nation every year, 14 straight years there. That’s a lot of winning. I don’t know if they can return to that again.”
Of course, football pedigree isn't the only element driving realignment.
UCLA and USC will find a richer payday in the Big Ten. Same for OU and Texas in the SEC. Meanwhile, those conferences will expand their reach and grow their audience.
While the riches of the SEC and Big Ten are a gravitational pull for schools flirting with a change, Spurrier wonders about the on-field effect. He questions how perennial Big 12 champion Oklahoma will fare in the SEC.
"I thought Oklahoma made a mistake," Spurrier said, "but Oklahoma people say, ‘We can play in the SEC. We’re not afraid of those guys.’ Time will tell."
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The ACC houses schools that should be attractive to the SEC or Big Ten, but the conference has avoided being plundered. It helps having a grant of rights deal that runs through 2036, creating a steep hurdle to any ACC school that wishes to exit. Leaving the ACC now could cost a member school hundreds of millions.
Other than Notre Dame, Clemson is the top football brand that's not a current or future member of the SEC or Big Ten, and the Tigers command a strong television audience.
However, Clemson might not top the SEC's wish list, even if the ACC's grant of rights deal didn't stand in the way.
The SEC has used past expansions to methodically expand its footprint into neighboring states while sticking to its well-crafted Southern identity. Using that as a guide, the SEC might prefer North Carolina, Virginia Tech or Virginia – the SEC does not include a school from either state – above the Tigers.
In terms of cultural fit and football product, though, there would be no better catch for the SEC than Clemson. It's been that way for years.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.