Back and forth. Back and forth. It is seemingly unending, fueled only by ego and the value of a good one-liner.
Sometimes Spurrier, South Carolina’s acid-tongued head coach, starts the barb volley.
Sometimes Swinney, Clemson’s confident head coach, just can’t help himself.
Last month, Swinney started the latest round by telling reporters at ACC media days of Spurrier, per USA Today Sports, that “He's from Pluto and I’m from Mars.”
Spurrier countered, per ESPN's Brett McMurphy: “Dabo still thinks there are nine planets out there.”
Steve Spurrier on Dabo Swinney’s “He’s from Pluto, I’m from Mars” quote: “Dabo still thinks there are 9 planets out there"— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) July 22, 2014
And so it goes, back and forth. Spurrier always seemingly has the last laugh, which is exactly how the rivalry has unfolded on the field over the last five seasons. After beating South Carolina in what would be his final game as Clemson’s interim head coach in 2008, Swinney has gone 0-5 against the Gamecocks, the longest streak of futility against USC in the teams’ 111-game rivalry.
Until the Tigers break through on the field, Swinney can’t do a thing about Spurrier’s mouth.
So how does Swinney quiet Spurrier? Just win, baby. To do so, the Tigers must improve in a number of areas across the board. Here’s a look at exactly what that entails.
There’s no questioning how important beating South Carolina is to Clemson.
Swinney’s staff has long had a countdown clock in Memorial Stadium’s WestZone that ticks down each week towards that particular week’s opponent—standard college football decor.
This winter, however, Clemson coaches installed a countdown clock that ticks towards the South Carolina game, set for Nov. 29 in Memorial Stadium. Swinney said at ACC media days that the clock was the coaching staff’s idea, per ASAP Sports.
[W]e have a countdown clock for always the next opponent, and the coaches wanted to put one in for that particular game, and it's really just based on the fact that when you walk in our team room every day and you look at our team goals, we've hit every team goal on there in the past five years with the exception of winning our state championship. So it's obviously something we've got to‑‑ it's a high priority. We want to get it done.
How does that happen? First thing's first: Control the ball.
Over the last three years, Clemson has scored almost at will against most opponents while employing Chad Morris’ hurry-up, no-huddle offense. In the last two seasons, the Tigers are one of five FBS teams to average over 40 points and 500 yards of total offense per game.
But they haven’t solved South Carolina’s defense. In three meetings, Morris’ Clemson offenses are averaging 15.3 points per game and haven’t held the ball longer than 22 minutes and 43 seconds in any of the three games.
There’s hope this fall, as the Gamecocks are retooling a defense that yielded 20.3 points per game last fall, No. 12 nationally. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is in Houston as the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick, and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles (9.5 sacks a year ago) is gone, too. South Carolina’s secondary has questions, with senior corner/safety Brison Williams the only returning starter.
That said, Clemson’s offense has questions, too. The Tigers are replacing the ACC’s all-time passing touchdowns leader and No. 2 all-time passer (quarterback Tajh Boyd), their all-time receptions and receiving yards leader (top-five NFL draft pick Sammy Watkins), a 1,000-yard rusher in Rod McDowell and another NFL draft pick in deep-threat receiver Martavis Bryant.
Swinney and Co. have expressed confidence in upperclassmen Adam Humphries and Charone Peake and talented sophomore Mike Williams, as well as a trio of highly touted early enrollee freshmen in Demarre Kitt, Kyrin Priester and Artavis Scott.
Senior quarterback Cole Stoudt, Boyd’s backup the past three seasons, has the respect of his teammates, and Swinney told ASAP Sports: “[W]e couldn’t have a guy more prepared to be the starter in the first game (against Georgia) than Cole Stoudt.”
But he must prove it on the field and hold off talented freshman Deshaun Watson, who threw for more than 13,000 yards and passed for more than 4,000 in his Georgia prep career. And while three offensive linemen return from a year ago, a backfield by committee must find bigger holes behind them.
The Tigers must also take better care of the ball. Over the last three seasons, South Carolina owns a 9-1 turnover margin against Clemson, including last season, when the Tigers coughed the ball up six times in Columbia in a 31-17 defeat.
The game was tied at 17 entering the fourth quarter, but the Tigers’ final three drives ended in turnovers as the Gamecocks outscored them 14-0 to win the game.
This fall, Clemson’s offense might need some more slack, but its defense is ready to carry its share of the load.
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables returns seven starters from a unit that held opponents to 22.2 points per game (No. 24 nationally) and ranked No. 1 nationally in tackles for loss per game, No. 5 in third-down conversion percentage and No. 13 in sacks per game.
The entire defensive line two-deep returns, led by senior All-America defensive end Vic Beasley. Senior middle linebacker Stephone Anthony is a nasty anchor for the linebacker corps, and the secondary should be just fine despite losing two starters, thanks to the likely emergence of redshirt freshman cornerback Mackensie Alexander, a star in waiting.
If Clemson’s defense can keep South Carolina’s offense off the field (something that didn’t happen much the past three seasons) and open up some opportunities for the Tigers offense, Swinney and Co. stand a good chance at quieting Spurrier.
Well, at least for a little while.
And you’d better believe that would mean plenty to the Tigers program.
“That's certainly something that has really been a painful part of our program for the last five years,” Swinney said, per ASAP Sports. “From an in‑state standpoint but also nationally.”
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