The rumor mill on conference realignment and how it impacts Clemson Football is churning. The most recent rumors (though currently unsubstantiated) involve the Tigers departing the ACC to join the Big Ten.
Though many fans have been clamoring for Clemson to leave the ACC, these rumors have stirred up the discussion of which Big Two conference is the best destination for Clemson. If the Tigers can find a way to exit the ACC, is the SEC the best destination, or is it the Big Ten?
Both conferences have selling points. The most notable point (right now) is television revenue, and neither side has a definitive advantage there. The SEC makes money because their football is considered the best in the nation. The Big Ten has some very good blue blood programs in Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State, but their real power comes from the size of their members’ fanbases.
For perspective, the 14 schools of the ACC had a total of 399,607 students in 2021. The members of the Big Ten in 2021 (14 total, does not include USC or UCLA) had 672,024 total students. The ACC only has 60% of the current enrollment of the Big Ten. The SEC had 490,299 students in 2021. Bigger enrollments have led to much bigger alumni bases over the years, which leads to more eyeballs and thus demand for the product, regardless of the quality.
The Big Ten is also a better fit culturally for Clemson than the SEC. When I say culture, I’m not talking about regionality. We all know Clemson is a southeastern school and most of the Big Ten is midwestern. I’m referring to the culture of the universities and how they prioritize sports overall.
The obvious exceptions to this are the warm weather sports, such as baseball and golf. There also isn’t a likelihood that the Tigers will be starting a hockey or men’s lacrosse team any time soon, which are huge sports for the Big Ten. Those factors favor the SEC.
Overall, I like the Big Ten better than the SEC, but if the Tigers were able to leave the ACC, I would prefer they join the SEC for one big reason: football recruiting.
The SEC is the king of college football recruiting. The SEC has had the most players drafted from any conference for 17 straight years. Recruits know this and many are attracted to this.
Add this to the biggest reason for that dominance: the southeast, from DC to Texas, has the most high-profile recruits in the country. The best prospects come from the southeast.
If Clemson joined the Big Ten, it would still be attractive to prospects from the Southeast and would grow its profile among prospects from the Northeast and Midwest, maybe even on the West Coast. They wouldn’t, however, have an advantage over SEC teams who are their peers. The SEC would still be a bigger destination than the Big Ten for recruits from the Southeast.
In the long run, Clemson Football would be more competitive in the SEC versus the Big Ten
The Big Ten will be able to compete with the SEC when it comes to television revenue, but they are still going to find it difficult to compete with them based on the quality of their football programs. Both conferences would have teams at the top but the balance of the programs in the SEC – Auburn, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, etc – attract better talent than the balance of programs in the Big Ten, like Iowa, Michigan State, Maryland, etc.
You would think that high school players would realize the bulk of the SEC draftees come from a few schools, but a quick look at the 247 team rankings says otherwise:
Of the current SEC schools, nine of them are in the Top 25. It’s eleven if you add Texas and Oklahoma. Of the current Big Ten schools, five of them are in the Top 25. It’s six if you add USC.
If the four schools rumored to join the Big Ten were added, Clemson, Florida State, and Oregon would make the Big Ten’s total nine, but you’re also talking about a 20-team league against a 16-team SEC, and they’re still trailing in Top 25 recruiting classes.
We should note two things: 1) there are a handful of Big Ten teams just outside the Top 25 and, 2) recruiting rankings are very fluid. By this time next month, several things might have changed.
If I were the athletic director or president at Clemson and there was an invitation to join either of the Big Two conferences, I would take it. The best-case scenario for Clemson Football is to join the SEC.