There are so many interesting subplots surrounding this year’s rivalry game between the Gamecocks and Tigers.
For both teams, much is at stake, namely recruiting, momentum, and bowl games.
When Tommy Bowden was fired and the Tigers were imploding, recruits jumped ship—and a handful (gasp!) went to South Carolina.
Since then, Carolina has locked up 22 commits, while Clemson sits at only eight, and is basically treading water until a head coach is named.
A win for the Gamecocks would 1.) pull Spurrier’s record to 2-2 against Clemson, 2.) effectively end Clemson’s season, as they would be knocked out of bowl contention, 3.) cloud Clemson’s coaching situation even more, 4.) all but lock up a New Year’s Day bowl game in Tampa.
All of that adds up to a 180 from last year—and this time Clemson would be playing catch up on the recruiting trail while South Carolina would be touting all of the above to recruits.
All that aside, however, we still have a game to play. Here is a quick look at the game’s keys:
Clemson comes in riding a two-game winning streak—a 31-7 win over Duke and a low-scoring 13-3 win over Virginia, courtesy mainly of four Cavalier turnovers.
Meanwhile, after finally clawing back into the top 25, South Carolina is licking its wounds after an embarrassing 56-6 loss to the Gators on CBS two weeks ago.
Clemson’s offense vs. South Carolina’s defense
While statistics clearly do not tell the whole story of a team (as the Florida-Carolina game showed), there are some stats that are simply too hard to ignore.
For example, Clemson has given up 24 sacks on the year while Carolina has gotten to opposing quarterbacks a solid 26 times, led by Eric Norwood’s SEC-leading seven.
Because of the pressure he has faced, Cullen Harper has only 10 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. Meanwhile, the Carolina secondary has suddenly become a group of ball hawkers, picking off five passes in their last four games.
Unless Clemson can work some magic and recreate its offensive line before Saturday, Harper might find himself on his back or chasing one of Carolina’s defensive backs.
Clemson’s running game always has the potential to explode, but through 11 games, Spiller, Davis, and Co. are only getting 115 yards per game.
Simply put, it’s tough to find an area where Clemson has the advantage on paper. The Tigers are terrible on 3rd down, only converting 29% of the time, and are highly penalized—two factors that do not help against one of the nation’s toughest defenses.
South Carolina’s offense vs. Clemson’s defense
The Head Ball Coach has proclaimed the quarterback rotation experiment over—and says Chris Smelley will be given the chance to go the distance.
Smelley has shown the ability to pick apart defenses if he has time. By the same token, he has also made some terrible decisions and horribly inaccurate throws.
Based on Clemson’s defense this year, though, it appears Smelley will have the time to do as he pleases. Even South Carolina’s biggest weakness, allowing sacks (a whopping 37), doesn’t play to Clemson’s strengths, as the Tigers are dead last in the ACC by only getting to the quarterback 13 times the entire year.
Spurrier plans to rotate fresh legs at tailback, and if the Gamecocks can get any semblance of a running game going, things should open up even more in the aerial attack.
The kicking game
Much has been made of the kicking game in this series—and rightfully so, as the last two games have come down to last second field goals.
Clemson’s Mark Buchholz has been solid this year, going 14-17. He also won the game for Clemson last year in the waning seconds at Williams-Brice Stadium. That kind of experience is always a plus in a rivalry game.
Carolina’s Ryan Succop has had an up-and-down year, to say the least. He has attempted an inordinate amount of kicks, 28, but has only connected on 19 of them. More importantly, Succop does not have that winning, signature kick in his career. He would love to get that chance this weekend.
On Clemson’s sideline, Dabo Swinney is trying everything he can to muster a more explosive offense, especially to offset a porous Tiger defense.
But it’s no secret that Swinney it out to win the job for good. And let’s make no mistake: This is Swinney’s Super Bowl. He believes a win will cement his status as the permanent head coach.
But between making out with Howard’s Rock, allowing cameras into his locker room for his first pre-game speech, or berating his punter for not showing effort, I’m just not convinced Swinney knows what it takes to effectively lead a team.
For the Cocks, Spurrier has had two weeks to plan for the Tigers. That additional week is huge, especially for a coach who has a knack for winning big games. Even though Spurrier has always placed a bigger premium on SEC games, a sense of urgency will loom large on the Carolina sidelines.
The Head Ball Coach has never been much of a rah-rah guy, but he knows how to get his kids motivated. Something tells me he already likes the holes he saw in Clemson’s defense while prepping for the game.
I just can’t see SOS resisting the urge to take sole ownership of play-calling duties this week. And if all else fails, Spurrier can always rest his hat on his stout defense—as he’s done all year.
In a lot of ways, I think this game will mirror Swinney’s first game as coach—a noon kickoff at home against a defensively sound team.
Georgia Tech spoiled Swinney’s over-the-top debut by stifling the Tigers’ run attack and making them one-dimensional.
For this reason, I don’t see the trend of last-minute drama continuing.
I like Carolina to set the tone early and take control. Because the Gamecocks simply can’t put teams away, Clemson will hang around, but in the end, it won’t be enough to pull off the win.
Winner: South Carolina, 24-20