Clemson and Its Perception Among College Football’s Elite

Clemson Appears to be More Than Just a Regional Football Power, So Where’s the Public Disconnect?

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. Continue reading