The emergence of Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence heightens ACC-SEC football rivalry

Beyond talk of paradigm shifts and dynasties rising and falling, Clemson’s decisive victory over Alabama in this year’s FBS championship game will reverberate for months, not least within the ACC.

Take reactions to Trevor Lawrence’s performance as he directed the Tiger offense to an 44-16 win.

At 19 Lawrence displays more aplomb at quarterback, a better command of his emotions and skills, than many players with more experience in college or the pros. Frankly, as long ago as the fifth game of Clemson’s season, when the freshman took over as starter, it appeared Kelly Bryant, the man Lawrence supplanted, was destined to become the ACC football equivalent of Wally Pipp. (See Yankees, Lou Gehrig, “The Iron Man”.) No wonder Bryant left.

Given media and social appetites, next season Lawrence may command as much attention and hype as Duke basketball wunderkind Zion Williamson, another freshman, enjoys right now.

Setting aside for a moment limits imposed from on high, the inevitable question arises why Williamson can go pro after a year but Lawrence is confined to college for three playing seasons whether he chooses that course or not.

These days, precocious quarterbacks assume starting roles in the NFL as rookies or shortly thereafter. Yet, oddly, we spend countless hours debating the fairness and ramifications of college basketball’s one-and-done bleed-off of top talent but rarely question why comparable avenues of opportunity (and fan frustration) aren’t open to NCAA football players such as Lawrence and classmate Justyn Ross, a wide receiver.

“It does seem it’s two more years in a sport (where) you’re dramatically more likely to be injured. The risks are higher, the delays are longer,” notes Dr. Paul Haagen, a Duke law professor and co-director of the school’s Center for Sports Law and Policy. “I think that Ross and Lawrence may push this discussion a little bit because their performance was so spectacular.”

SEC and ACC football

A topic more likely to gain favor with Clemson’s second title in three years is the traditional rivalry between the SEC and the ACC.

The SEC’s founding schools were in the Southern Conference along with five original ACC members and two that joined later. The SEC’s 1932-33 formation, or secession if you prefer, surely created a measure of friction akin to that occasioned in ACC circles when South Carolina and Maryland jumped ship in 1971 and 2014, respectively.

Over the years the SEC made clear its enduring priorities by routinely placing football assistants in charge of basketball squads. John Mauer, Tennessee’s basketball coach, enlisted someone from another college to direct the Volunteers in a game at heralded Madison Square Garden so he could assist football’s Gen. John Neyland at the 1938 Rose Bowl. Thirty years later Mississippi announced head basketball coach Eddie Crawford had been promoted – to full-time freshman football coach.

By then overshadowed ACC schools balked with increasing fervor at league admissions standards more rigorous than those of the NCAA, hampering football recruiting against nearby SEC competitors. Maryland, Clemson and South Carolina were especially vociferous; the Gamecocks ultimately withdrew from the ACC, only to wind up in the SEC decades later.

Hyping rivalries

Basketball was a different matter. Kentucky and coach Adolph Rupp cast a shadow over their SEC brethren for decades. Even when other schools finally invested enough in the sport to compete and win, at least five squads from devoutly segregated states (Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State) declined NCAA tournament participation to avoid facing black players.

The ACC didn’t fully integrate until Virginia quit excluding black and female students in 1970-71. But the league did disperse NCAA glory by sending representatives from the more moderate reaches of Maryland and North Carolina to every tournament from its 1953-54 start through 1970.

SEC basketball still seems stratified between Kentucky and everyone else. Duke and North Carolina perennially rule the ACC men’s roost, but made way this century for Maryland and, lately, Virginia. On the football side the SEC has a wider variety of top-10 teams. Since 2006 it spawned more national football champions (nine from four schools) than the ACC generated since it began play (eight from four programs).

Blocked by Clemson

With Clemson’s prowess accepted as a given, the cheek-to-jowl leagues will be mentioned often in the same breath. ESPN will make sure that’s true, especially once it starts operating TV networks devoted to each conference. Everyone’s financial best interests will be served by hyping tensions or rivalries. Rest assured in-season matchups between squads from the SEC and ACC will receive heightened attention. (Alabama-Duke opens the ’19 season nine days after the ACC network debuts.)

Finally, the longer Clemson goes on bulldozing its way through the ACC en route to greater glories, the harder it will be for other quality teams in the Atlantic Division to remain satisfied with their lot. Programs like a rebuilding Florida State or aspiring N.C. State, accorded scant respect nationally, won’t be satisfied indefinitely with being blocked by the Tigers.

There’s no guarantee Dabo Swinney’s program will remain a colossus. All empires decline eventually. But, just as Alabama’s preeminent perch grew tiresome to many in and beyond the SEC, so Clemson’s dominance might soon seem stifling. Especially within its arbitrarily configured division -- while a 7-5 Pitt squad wins the Coastal title.

Senior ACC leaders accustomed to negotiating collegially – ADs Kevin White of Duke, N.C. State’s Debbie Yow, Wake Forest’s Ron Wellman, commissioner John Swofford – are nearing the ends of their careers. Once they’re done, the handling of issues of internal equity like divisional disparities, affecting revenues and prestige, could threaten comity within the sprawling, 15-school confederation.

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