Clemson football: Tigers a better fit for the Big Ten than the SEC

News that UCLA and USC are abandoning the PAC-12 for the Big 10 has once again shaken the college football world including Clemson football.

It was only a matter of time until the landscape of college football was shaken by another realignment earthquake. Texas and Oklahoma haven’t even officially departed the Big 12 for the SEC, but that isn’t keeping other programs from thinking about the future.

USC and UCLA are considering a move to the Big Ten in 2024. The PAC-12’s television contracts expire soon, and it gives the members of the conference to consider exiting without massive financial penalties. While this puts the two schools in a conference where all their league opponents would be a considerable distance from them, it is clear that financially they felt this was a necessary move to stay relevant in the ever-changing world of college football.

Lately, relevance seems to be very much fueled by television rights deals. The SEC and the Big Ten have been bringing in more and more money for their member institutions every year. The PAC-12 has been negotiating new rights deals and had projected gains for their members, but clearly USC and UCLA, arguably the most powerful and recognizable athletic programs in the conference, didn’t think the future gains were nearly enough.

While fans thinking about the performance of teams on the field have been talking about the Power Five or the hypothetical Power Four, fans who had their pulse on the finances of the conferences understood a Power Two was inevitable down the line. We just couldn’t see how far away, or how close, that inevitability could be. A move of this magnitude by USC and UCLA to the Big Ten this quickly on the heels of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC suggests the two conferences might accelerate their expansion plans to keep up with one another – an arms race between the Power Two.

The balance of the PAC-12 (or PAC-10 again – too soon?) is obviously in play. Schools like Oregon and Washington could be in play for the Big Ten. It remains to be seen if schools like Arizona, Arizona State or Colorado could be targets for the SEC. The Big 12 could have schools targeted, but there is a chance that the SEC and Big Ten already have the valuable programs they want from their footprint.

That leaves the ACC as the possible next battleground for an arms race between the Big Two. This is where things get complicated, as the ACC’s grant of rights makes if financially difficult for a school to leave the conference before 2036. Difficult does not mean impossible, however, and pressure on schools to remain relevant in college sports, specifically football, could push some programs to roll the dice on leaving – giving up revenue in the short to mid-term to have better financial standing in the long term.

It is also possible that networks could get involved as well, especially if the Big Ten continues their partnership with FOX. With the SEC being tied to ESPN, it is conceivable that the networks themselves may get involved to make it more feasible for some programs to change conference affiliations. ESPN and FOX may get into a television arms race.

While the ACC has been a traditional basketball conference, there are a handful of schools that consider football to be their flagship, such as Florida State, Virginia Tech, Miami and, of course, Clemson. Of those four, Clemson has the longest tenure as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and would be leaving the most tradition behind, but the pressure to stay competitive against regional foes in the SEC, like Georgia and Alabama, and other recent playoff opponents such as Ohio State is probably enough to convince Clemson’s leadership to explore membership with either of the Big Two is it were possible.

I think most fans would immediately assume that the best fit for Clemson would be the SEC, and there are several reasons to consider that the correct conclusion. Fans of college football have long commented that Clemson’s football-first mindset is a better match for the SEC than the ACC. Geographically, Clemson is much closer to most of the SEC institutions than their Big Ten counterparts. Clemson’s two biggest traditional rivals are both in the SEC – South Carolina & Georgia. The SEC has Clemson’s most valued recruiting real estate.

There’s just one problem with Clemson to the SEC: their cultures are a dreadful fit.

Clemson has been a place that values family and integrity for a long time, but those qualities have become the foundation of the football program’s culture since the beginning of Dabo Swinney’s tenure as head coach. That culture has spread and taken hold across all the sports at Clemson. The softball program has been founded during the golden age of that culture and has been immensely successful and popular.

This past year I studied the cultures of the Clemson fan base and many other schools. I wanted to know if Clemson’s culture was as unique as many of us perceive it to be, and to see which other schools might share their appreciation for family values and integrity. I used social media to gather feedback from several fanbases and compiled the information into word clouds so I could compare them.

The feedback from Clemson fans was clear: they valued family above all else. Other common words included integrity, tradition and loyalty.

When I looked at cultures from the SEC, I got the most feedback from Alabama, Georgia and LSU, and what I learned was that their cultures were generic. Their word clouds tended to focus on things like football, winning and excellence. Words like family and integrity were included but they were very small, indicating they weren’t common responses.

Despite the geography, Clemson football’s culture is a better fit in the Big Ten than the SEC

When I looked at cultures of the Big Ten, I found the most feedback from Ohio State, Michigan and Nebraska. While they also showed a tendency towards football and winning, the word integrity was prominently featured as well. Like the ACC, the Big Ten has always promoted the academics of their member institutions as a defining characteristic of their conference and their mission.

Remember, culture isn’t just about accents, popular foods and climate. There is a perception among many that Midwest and northern schools tailgates and gameday crowds can’t compare to the way we do it in the southeast. Wisconsin says “Hold my beer.” Jump Around at Camp Randall registers earthquakes on Richter scales over two miles away from the stadium. The SEC has LSU at night, the Big Ten has the White Out.

To look at this another way, consider the first line of the ACC’s mission statement:

“The Atlantic Coast Conference, through its member institutions, seeks to maximize the educational and athletic opportunities of its student-athletes, while enriching their quality of life.”

Now here’s the lead line in the Big Ten’s mission statement:

“The Big Ten Conference is an association of world-class universities whose member institutions share a common mission of research, graduate, professional and undergraduate teaching and public service.”

And this is the entirety of the SEC leads off their mission statement:

“The purpose of the Southeastern Conference is to assist its member institutions in the maintenance of programs of intercollegiate athletics which are compatible with the highest standards of education and competitive sports.”

The ACC’s leads with the quality of the student experience, the Big Ten leads with academics, and the SEC leads with the management of athletic programs. It almost feels like the SEC threw in the word ‘education’ as a token reference.

While Clemson differs from a lot of their ACC partners because they are a football school instead of a basketball school, there is a reason the ACC has been their home for so long: they share values that can be summed up by saying athletics are great, but there are other things that are important too, and some of them are more important than simply being excellent during competition.

There are some barriers to membership for Clemson in the Big Ten. Until now, the Big Ten has always required potential members to be in the American Association of Universities, which is an organization of research institutions. The only exception in the Big Ten right now is Nebraska. USC & UCLA are both members, as are some other PAC-12 schools. Clemson is not a member, and gaining membership isn’t a simple process. While there are some ACC members that are AAU members, they don’t have the football profile of a school like Clemson. If the Big Ten wants to keep up with the SEC, they may need to be willing to set aside their standard of insisting on AAU membership for new additions. The Big Ten will need to expand their footprint into the southeast for recruiting purposes.

If someone asked me if Clemson was more likely to join the SEC or the Big Ten, I would concede that most factors suggest the SEC would be the most logical eventuality, but that doesn’t mean they are the best choice. Despite the added travel and the lack of natural rivals, Clemson University would fit in better with the institutions of the Big Ten than those of the SEC. When it comes to culture and priorities, Clemson would be a unicorn in the SEC.

Besides, do you really want Clemson to be affiliated with Paul Finebaum?