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Clemson-to-SEC unlikely to happen

If the attitude of an average Clemson fan toward the SEC were summed up, it probably would be as follows:

Grudging admiration in football. Laughter at the idea that it's catching up to the ACC in basketball. Derision at the SEC's academics and NCAA run-ins.

And with all that as the backdrop, the big question being asked among those same fans -- and possibly by school officials -- is:

Should we think about joining the SEC if that option presents itself?

It probably will not happen. From talking to several people connected with Clemson, including alumni and officials, most seem to prefer the ACC, which it joined as a charter member in 1953.

But what if Clemson's hand is forced?

What's fascinating about all this expansion talk is that decisions being made multiple time zones away will determine whether Clemson will face the decision of whether to join the SEC. And the school that Clemson beat in the 1981 national championship football game could be the linchpin:

Nebraska has a deadline of about two weeks (depending on which report you believe) to decide whether it will remain in the Big 12, even though it might not have a formal offer from the Big Ten. (The Big 12 appears ready to let Missouri go to the Big Ten if it receives an offer.) If Nebraska leaves, then six other Big 12 schools -- with Texas the ringleader -- could bolt to the Pac-10.

That would create a super-conference out west. The Big Ten, also considering going the super-league route, almost certainly would do so in turn, pillaging the Big East and what's left of the Big 12.

That would leave the SEC, which would have to decide whether it can let two other super-conferences gobble up money and the competitive advantages that go with it (facilities, coaches' salaries, etc.). The desired option for the SEC would be to add the Texas schools, but with that being off the table, guess who's probably next on the list? The four southern-most ACC schools: Georgia Tech, Florida State, Miami and Clemson, plus football-strong Virginia Tech.

(In a dream world, North Carolina also would be available, but the Tobacco Road schools are attached at the hip.)

Clemson certainly would love the higher annual payout from the SEC and the better road trips in football. But if winning more football games is a priority, the SEC isn't the best place. Just ask the Gamecocks.

Clemson also has to consider academics. It's been trying to bolster its reputation, and rose to 61st nationally in the most recent U.S. News and World Report rankings. That's ninth in the ACC, a testament to the strength of the league in academics, but it would rank fourth in the SEC.

Scoff if you will, but trust me: As long as college presidents -- and not coaches or fans -- are driving the train, academics will be a factor. Why? Because athletics conferences are the highest-profile way that schools are associated with one another. It's primarily a prestige thing. It's not the be-all, end-all, obviously, or else Vanderbilt wouldn't be in the SEC. But there is a reason there is an Ivy League.

Then again, Clemson also cares a lot about its football reputation. That might end up being more important.

There's no doubt the SEC is different than the ACC. Especially if the ACC is about to lose its best football schools. Yes, that could make it easier for Clemson to win games and make the BCS -- assuming the BCS remains intact after all this shakes out.

Does the SEC even want Clemson? Who knows; commissioner Mike Slive isn't saying. The SEC's bylaws state a new school has to receive the approval of nine of the 12 members. Even if USC objected to Clemson joining -- clearly it would -- it would have to persuade three other schools to vote with it.

So this is what Clemson should be doing:

1. Keep in touch with the powers-that-be at Miami, FSU, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, gauging whether there is possible movement. If not, don't worry about it, because the ACC is a comfortable spot, even if it's not as lucrative or as good in football as the SEC.

2. But as long as there is a chance of the ACC being raided, keep its options open. Since the SEC would invite, at most, four schools, make sure it, and not Virginia Tech, is one of them. Clemson might love the ACC, but not a watered-down one.

3. If it appears only two schools are going to bolt -- say, Georgia Tech and Florida State -- the course of action is less obvious: Stay in a weaker ACC that probably would add Big East castoffs (Connecticut and Syracuse?) or try to squirm into the SEC.

Clemson has a proud tradition in the ACC. It has a home there as long as it wants. But it has to keep its options open. It's a delicate balance, but one the Upstate school has to maintain as expansion unfolds.