Several years ago, Stewart Mandel’s separation of college football’s major programs into tiers from Kings to Peasants provoked a fierce backlash from Georgia fans who resented their school’s placement in the Baron tier rather than among the Kings alongside SEC brethren Alabama, Florida, and Tennessee. When Mandel revisited his rankings this summer, Georgia remained among the Barons. Whether or not Bulldog fans have a right to gripe, the rankings are interesting for the light they shed on the ACC. Even with lackluster decades, Florida State and Miami remain among the Kings, while Clemson and Virginia Tech are included with the Barons.
Despite Mandel’s ranking, Clemson is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the other programs of the Baron tier. Possessing “SEC-type” fans, whatever that means, one of the most loyal donor bases in the country, a beautiful campus, and a rich tradition, including a national title and more ACC championships than any other program, Clemson seems built to be a King. But although often described as “Auburn with a lake,” the Tigers of South Carolina generally receive much less hype than those of Alabama. The ACC is seen as belonging to Florida State and Virginia Tech; only when extremely talented skill players return, as in 2008 or 2012, does Clemson get any substantial preseason hype, generally the best indicator of a program’s respectability. In last summer’s Conference Re-Draft, Clemson was picked 37th, the last of Mandel’s Barons tier to go off the board and well behind #14 Virginia Tech and #26 Auburn despite owning a generally more successful basketball program and a vastly more prominent baseball program.
In the public relations battle which dominates conference realignment and determinations of a program’s relative value, Clemson has clearly been on the losing side. Notorious for winning games they should lose and and losing even more games they should win, the Tigers haven’t truly been a national presence since Danny Ford left in 1990. I live in Illinois; when I tell people around me that Clemson is my alma mater, I’m usually greeted with a blank stare, surely an even worse reaction than Mandel’s failure of a hypothetical Montanan to recognize a football helmet.
A comparison with Auburn and Virginia Tech, two schools with whom Clemson has much in common, might shed some light on the Tigers’ losing battle to gain the national spotlight. Despite Mandel’s tier lists, Auburn and Virginia Tech would generally be counted as national powers, while Clemson would probably be thought of as a regional power. All three schools were founded as agricultural or technical schools, feature strong engineering programs, are located in rural areas of the Southern hill country, and have strong and passionate fan bases. And all three play major season-ending rivalry games, although Clemson and Virginia Tech generally get the better of their in-state foes, while Auburn is historically weaker than Alabama.
Auburn, Virginia Tech, and Clemson rank #13, #16, and #25 respectively on the all-time wins list, relatively close to each other (there is a 54-game difference between Auburn and Clemson, compared to a 184-game separation between Auburn and #1 Michigan). And against Auburn’s two national titles in the modern era, Clemson claims one, while Virginia Tech can point to a championship game appearance and an empty trophy case waiting to be filled. All in all, there’s not really a major difference here. They’re a step below Alabama and Notre Dame, but a step above schools that haven’t sniffed at a #1 finish.
Yet Clemson has a hard time gaining national respect. Part of this comes from perception of the strength of the ACC as a whole. However, the simplest explanation (usually the best) is that the Tigers haven’t won big lately. Despite the programs’ similarities, by any standard Auburn and Virginia Tech have had a much better two decades than Clemson. Since Ford left Clemson, Auburn has finished in the top 10 five times, including three undefeated teams, only one of which managed to win a national title. The Hokies have had six top-10 seasons in the same span, including eight major bowl games. Clemson has had one top-10 finish, when Ken Hatfield won the ACC with Ford’s players in 1990, and had zero major bowl games until last year’s Orange Bowl shellacking.
Ultimately, the answer to the question “Why doesn’t Clemson get any respect as a major football program?” is the same as the answer to the question “Why has Clemson football stunk for 20 years?” Despite Mandel’s Montana metric, the real measurement for a program’s strength is winning games. LSU and Oregon have pushed their way into the national elite in the last decade by winning games; Tennessee and UCLA have probably fallen out by losing them, as did Army and Minnesota decades ago.
If Clemson had a record like Auburn’s over the last two decades, both sets of Tigers could be spoken of at the same level. So while Clemson might deserve more respect than it gets, the solution is simple. Elite programs don’t go twenty years without a conference title, and they don’t give up 70 points in their bowl game. If Clemson wants to be considered an elite program, it has to play like one. The future looks brighter for Clemson than it has for some time, and maybe in this decade the Tigers will regain the place they held during the 1980s.