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What Does Possible Conference Realignment Mean for Clemson?

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NCAA Football: Alabama at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

The news that Texas and Oklahoma are leaving the Big 12 sent shockwaves across college football. In this roundtable, STS writers Ryan Kantor, Drew Schneider, and Will Harper share their thoughts on how it could impact Clemson and the sport at large.

Texas and Oklahoma have officially left the Big 12 and will presumably head over to the now absurdly strong SEC. If we look at this in isolation and assume that no other Power Five teams switch conferences, how does it impact Clemson?

Drew: It doesn’t impact Clemson one way or the other. All it does is give Texas and Oklahoma more excuses for blowing games. Clemson positions themselves as the football factory alternative, while still getting football factory results. If anything, it further solidifies that position. The kids they have managed to pull out of Texas had every opportunity to stay in Texas and play for an SEC school, or head to Texas or Oklahoma and play a “blue blood” but decided not to be more grist for the the SEC or Texas/Oklahoma football mill.

Will: Like Drew, I don’t think this automatically affects Clemson negatively. Clemson is the shiny east coast alternative to the SEC powerhouses - that doesn’t change with the addition of Texas and Oklahoma. I also don’t think these two blue bloods are the only schools swapping things up on us, but rather that this is the first of some very tall dominoes. Whether Clemson remains unaffected by some of those dominoes to come is another matter entirely, but for the present I don’t think Clemson is missing out yet.

Ryan: I think the “play in the SEC” pitch just got stronger. Back in 2016, the ACC was arguably the strongest conference. The SEC is generally better, but at least people could say “it’s cyclical” and half-way mean it. Now, I think it becomes a primary sales pitch for SEC schools. I believe that recruiting pitch is a big reason why Texas and OU are making the move. If no other dominoes fall, perhaps it is only a minor annoyance for Clemson, but like Will, I imagine there may be more coming.

What does this mean for the Big 12? Can the league survive when its top football programs are Oklahoma State and West Virginia? Do they raid the AAC for Houston and Cincinnati or do something more creative like a merger with the ACC or something along those lines?

Drew: Ryan asked this question a few days ago, but interestingly enough, what it means at the moment is the Big 12 filing a cease and desist order against ESPN while they look into tampering by the “World Wide Leader.” To me, this smacks of ESPN trying to recoup some money from their “Longhorn Network” boondoggle by bringing the Longhorns into the fold. As far as Oklahoma goes, well, if you’re familiar with old Tom and Jerry cartoons, they fill the role of Chester nicely...bouncing around and waiting for Texas to tell them what direction the wind is blowing. If you think about it, they’re both rather pathetic hangers on for two teams that claim to be college football royalty.

I think you’ll see the Big 12 sit pat and see how this plays out. They’re going to fight Texas and Oklahoma tooth and nail for every penny of their exit fee (hence the ESPN cease and desist letter). They don’t have to do anything at the moment, but I could see a potential merger with another conference, while maintaining the Big 12 banner, as a future solution.

Will: I think it could be a death blow to the Big 12 conference. With the loss of these two schools, the rest of the conference’s programs will be suffering a massive drop in revenue and will possibly have to make some hard choices about sports programs. Much has been said about how college football practically pays for schools’ entire athletic departments, and without the luxury of a premium conference rights deal, there is no telling how long some of these schools will last. Rumors are flying around faster than ever but it’s already been reported that just about every school in the conference has at least tried to poke around the market. As for a merger, I’m sure Bob Bowlsby would rather snatch a few AAC teams up than disband entirely.

Ryan: In the ruthless world of re-alignment I don’t see a true merger happening, but I could see about half of the AAC moving to the Big 12. Honestly, I’d be happy for schools like Cincinnati and Houston to be in a Power 5 league. I’d also love to see BYU (independent) and/or Boise State (Mountain West) able to join the big boys. I’m just hoping the Big 12 doesn’t start to fracture pieces into the other leagues — beyond potentially WVU going to the ACC, which I’d welcome.

If other conferences begin making additions beyond just Texas and Oklahoma, does the ACC have to make a move? Where does Notre Dame fit into all of this?

Ryan: The ACC can’t get antsy and invite AAC teams into the conference just for the sake of getting bigger and feeling more stable. I think adding Notre Dame has to be priority #1. Sell them on the fact that the revenue gap between them and the SEC just grew exponentially. Remind them that scheduling games against SEC opponents is going to become exceedingly hard (would you want to play Notre Dame in the non-conference slate if you had a ridiculously hard SEC schedule?). Then offer up some incentives. Work with them to figure out a pod system that they’re happy with. Offer to bring in West Virginia or Navy as a 16th school if that makes it more appealing for them. Give them some assurances about scheduling. Whatever it takes.

At the same time, I think you can show them some real downside to not joining too. Highlight the risk that the ACC gets raided for teams like Clemson and North Carolina if they don’t join. Then they’d have their current arrangement with a conference that looks a lot like the AAC. That’s a big loss for them.

If that doesn’t work, I think West Virginia is the only other option. Adding teams like UCF only waters down the league and makes it more likely that the major players want to flee the league.

Drew: Outside of making Notre Dame a full member, I think the ACC stands pat. West Virginia would be the other obvious add in terms of geography, but I see them as a program with a hard ceiling in terms of national relevance.

Like Ryan, I think dipping into the G5 would be pointless. Maybe a move to the ACC for one of the other Florida schools could bring them up to par? Maybe adding Cincinnati could help move that program up a level? I’m not sure I buy either of those scenarios, but they’re not outside the realm of possibility. In the end, I’m not sure there is another team out there that moves the needle, and if the needle isn’t going to move...what’s the point?

Will: Hold fast and hope the wind doesn’t knock you over. It is important for the ACC to hold its value, not add bloat to the conference just for the sake of keeping up appearances. For now, the ACC is in a decent spot, and they don’t have reason to fear they are in danger just yet.

Should that change and it appear to be more necessary that the ACC starts adding free agents to the mix, Notre Dame is the obvious choice and would absolutely be a strong addition to the ACC, but I doubt they bend that knee just yet. The Irish may even be feeling more important than ever, flashing their independent label and celebrating their freedom from money-hungry university presidents.

The G5 likely doesn’t have much to offer the ACC, outside of a select few, but even those are hardly equivalent to Texas and Oklahoma. I think the ACC should sit tight but watch closely to see how these next few months (weeks?) play out. They certainly don’t want to be sitting in the dust empty-handed, but that danger is far off right now for the ACC.

If Clemson, a charter member of the ACC, were invited to the SEC, under what scenarios, if any, would you like to see them accept the invitation?

Ryan: If the ACC adds Notre Dame, I think Clemson can almost certainly stay put. If not, then it just depends on the fall-out from the Big 12 situation. If no other teams change conferences besides Oklahoma and Texas, a change likely isn’t necessary for Clemson. Conversely, if the SEC starts adding many more teams and forming almost a separate, higher division of college football, you can’t get left behind. If Florida State or North Carolina leave the ACC for any reason, you have to find an escape hatch.

If it comes to that, I would hope Clemson can bring Florida State, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, and NC State, or are least a few of those schools with them. I’d like to see those opponents remain part of any future conference Clemson is in. I also think this “super league” could use some cannon fodder aside from Vanderbilt and South Carolina. Going up against Georgia and Florida with frequency would be fun, but you still want a couple high-probably wins on the schedule like NC State, who Clemson has beaten 15 of the last 16 times and Georgia Tech who Clemson has beat eight of the last nine times.

Drew: At some point, college football has to be about more than television contracts and recruiting footprints. As a fan and alum, I would be disgusted if Clemson abandoned the ACC for the SEC. Seriously, I love Clemson football, but that would be a bridge too far. I can find other things to do to occupy my Saturdays than watch whatever amorphous money sucking blob the SEC would be with Clemson as a member.

Further, I think the ACC is in a great position in terms of football. If you’re looking for upside, I would rather be the ACC than the Big Ten. Miami and Florida State can’t even see the ceiling of their programs at the moment, and Miami was pretty good last year. North Carolina looks to be on the right path, and I think Mac Brown is building their coaching staff in a way that sustains the program after his departure. Georgia Tech might take another season to reboot, but they are starting to pull in some of that sweet local talent. They won’t compete with Georgia or Clemson for the truly elite, but that next level down isn’t anything to scoff at in the Peach State. Throw in whatever Virginia and Virginia Tech can muster and signs of life out of Boston College and the demise of ACC football has been greatly exaggerated.

Will: An apocalyptic scenario, to say the least. I would rather Clemson go anywhere else than to follow the chickens to their beloved SEC domain. In fact, the only way I could see Clemson joining the SEC without it completely ruining my mood for the next five years would be for them to swap with USCjr — sharing a house with them just doesn’t feel right.

I am quite curious to see how the college football playoff is affected through all of this. Remember when the biggest news of the offseason was that we were finally getting an expanded 12-team playoff system? This makes that look like a distant, warm summer memory now in comparison. Does the potential death of the Big 12 mean further playoff expansion or just more exclusivity for the top dogs in college football? Does the SEC evolve into a super-league and start its own playoff? So many questions, so little clarity.