By now you no doubt have seen T Kyle King's overture to SEC fans everywhere that the Clemson Tigers belong in the SEC. I realize I am a biased partisan, which has everything to do with being raised in the Gamecock tradition, but for the life of me I cannot understand King's infatuation with the Tigers. Sometimes I wonder if the man synonymous with hating orange doesn't have a secret penchant for wearing tiger paw jammies to bed. He leans hard on the cultural and geographical arguments for Clemson's inclusion but brushes aside the entire impetus for conference expansion -- the financial considerations. I don't know about you, dear reader, but I get the distinct feeling that Dawg Sports would trade us straight up for the Clemson Tigers in a heart beat.
How did it come to this? The 'Cocks and 'Dawgs share a football history stretching back just as far as the 'Dawgs and Tigers. UGA first squared off with South Carolina in 1894. It wasn't until three years later that the 'Dawgs faced Clemson for the first time. King even freely admits in his piece that the addition of the Gamecocks to the SEC allowed for the resumption of a longstanding yearly rivalry between the neighboring institutions. Over the past decade the series has become known for closely contested matches and nail-biting finishes. It has become one of the premiere early season match ups in the nation. We've seen our share of highlight reel plays and have heard our share of memorable play-by-play calls. What, then, lends the UGA series with Clemson so much more weight than the one with USC in the minds of 'Dawg fans?
In the past King has hinted that the tilts between Clemson and UGA in the 80s were very much a part of his formative years as I fan. I respect the traditionalist in T Kyle King. I feel comfortable in saying that I think we share similar views on conference expansion and a college football playoff. And I can certainly respect the concept of yearning to return to a time when one's alma mater was nationally prominent on the gridiron. I can even understand the inclination to ascribe unrelated peripherals, like the fact that Clemson was also nationally prominent and happened to be on UGA's schedule more often than not, to UGA's success in the 80s. I, myself, have been known to be something of a superstitious pigeon from time to time. But what I can't understand is this notion that admitting Clemson into the SEC is good for the SEC.
On the surface admitting Clemson to the SEC seems like a snug cultural and geographical fit. Culturally, I must conceed that Clemson would slide right in with the current SEC lineup. They're an old South university, football first athletic program, and even lay claim to a football national championship earned under suspicious circumstances. If that doesn't scream "ESS EEE CEE" then I don't know what does.
The Tigers are located within a short driving distance of both Columbia, SC and Athens, GA -- two institutions with which the they share historic rivalries. But what about Clemson gives it a more compelling location than, say, Georgia Tech? The Yellow Jackets are smack dab in the middle of SEC country. Atlanta is less than four hours drive from Athens, Columbia, Auburn, Tuscaloosa, Nashville, and Knoxville. Heck, the SEC even hosts its football and basketball championships there. For comparison, Clemson is only that close to Columbia, Athens, and Knoxville. What's more, anyone who has ever been to a game at Clemson knows that there are only two roads in and out of that town. One could easily spend four hours just trying to get to the highway after a Tigers night game. Meanwhile, Atlanta has multiple different routes for egress.
T Kyle King also highlights Clemson's cultural ties to the SEC:
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. [...] 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.
Interestingly, King notes that Clemson has the look and feel of an SEC school -- even more so than Georgia Tech, who actually was a founding member of the conference. I don't know what constitutes a school "feeling" like it belongs in the SEC, but I do know Clemson has only played three SEC schools more than 20 times: Auburn (47), Georgia (62), and South Carolina (108). Swap out Clemson for South Carolina and that number drops to two. On the other hand, Georgia Tech has met with seven SEC schools at least 20 times: Alabama (52), Auburn (92), Florida (39), Georgia (105), South Carolina (21), Tennessee (43), Vanderbilt (37). The Ramblin' Wreck has met LSU and Kentucky 19 times each on the gridiron.
Maybe I'm just dense, but I don't follow the leap to asserting that having Clemson in the SEC makes more sense than having South Carolina in SEC, either. It's 2011 and we've been in the conference for 20 years now. Before our admission in 1991 Georgia and South Carolina had met some 40-times on the gridiron. The SEC extended an invitation to the Gamecocks and we accepted. At what point can I stop defending our inclusion in the best college football conference in the country?
That Clemson has coaching ties to the SEC is a suspect argument as well. While it's true that John Heisman coached at both Auburn and Clemson, it is also true that he coached at Georgia Tech in between. While interesting, I don't see how the wanderlust habits of the college coaching profession bolster the argument that Clemson belongs in the SEC. The truth is that we could play Six Degrees of John Heisman with any two schools in the NCAA. Seeing a synergistic connection in the migratory habits a coaching legend from 100 years go is a lot like Dan Brown's concocting a veritable alphabet soup in da Vinci's The Last Supper. It makes for a good story, but when you get down to it it just does not hold up to scrutiny.
Of course, the only question that really matters in this conference expansion discussion is "Will the addition of School XXX bring in more money to the conference?" With Clemson, the answer is an unequivocal "No." For the record, I feel the same way about Georgia Tech.
You see, this whole expansion thing has been driven by dollars, which in turn are driven by television contracts. I agree with T Kyle King that if SEC expansion had to come, then Texas A&M probably makes the most sense. However, I disagree slightly with him in that I don't see the addition of the Aggies as making complete geographic sense. Ideally, Texas A&M would have been located within the footprint of the existing SEC. Staking out another conference member in the outermost hinterlands of the SEC dilutes the "familiarity breeds contempt" concept that King touched on in his piece. To me, what makes the SEC so successful is that SEC fans as a group identify with one another. The SEC has the strongest brand identity of any conference and SEC fans have the strongest brand loyalty of any fans. I only mention this to say that if what the SEC were concerned about was brand identity, then I think Clemson would have a much stronger case for inclusion. Instead, it has become painfully clear that this entire expansion process is being driven solely by television contracts.
In this respect the Tigers just can't deliver. Clemson brings nothing to the conference in terms of financial leverage. The Gamecocks already have the state of South Carolina pretty well-covered, and it’s a state that ranks near the bottom of the Union in terms of population. Should we add Clemson to cut into the coveted greater-Anderson area market? It would make much more sense to woo a team from North Carolina so that the SEC would have a presence in Charlotte. If you have ever lived above the North Carolina/ South Carolina border then you know it is virtually impossible to get any local SEC media coverage. I don’t see what Clemson brings to the SEC other than an historical rivalry with UGA. The conference already has an Auburn. Besides, I know T Kyle King would agree with me that just because a rivalry used to be important doesn't mean it still is (That was a joke, Kyle. Please don't yell at me.).
From a South Carolina fan's perspective, we plain don’t want Clemson in the SEC. We endured a string of humiliating years on the gridiron, and now that we finally have the upper hand on Clemson we don’t want our progress ripped out from under us. Maybe having Clemson in the division would give USC a better shot at a championship than having an FSU, but that’s not our only concern. I wouldn’t expect UGA fans, who have had a strangle hold over their in-state rival since before I was born, to identify with this sentiment, but I would expect y’all to be able to understand where we are coming from. I don’t see why visceral appeals should carry no weight with the Dawg Sports community since I’ve seen T Kyle King proclaim multiple times that Ga. Tech shouldn't be considered for inclusion in the SEC simply because “they had their chance and they left us.”
At the end of the day, maybe that's what this entire post has been about: a visceral appeal for acceptance. Twenty years after the fact we South Carolina fans are still left feeling like outsiders in our own conference. It's bad enough that one of the most universally respected bloggers insists on referring to the Gamecocks as "The Palmetto State Poulty" while he has graciously and inexplicably bestows the moniker of "Country Gentlemen" to our hated in-state rivals. We can't even keep our biggest conference rival from contemplating infidelity with the harlot over yonder across the hills.
For their part, I have no doubt that Clemson fans want into the SEC. And that just might be the best argument against their inclusion I've heard yet.