Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier have developed reputations -- not to mention a following -- for their off-field jabs at each other.
In the days leading up to Saturday’s rivalry game in Death Valley, though, they’ve actually been playing nice -- and they’ve been spot-on in praising each other’s strengths:
Spurrier: “Clemson and the offense they have, is by far the best we've played against this year.”
Swinney: “Defensively, they’re as good as anybody we’ve played, as good as anybody we’re going to play, as good as anybody is going to play.”
And therein lies the key to Saturday’s game.
How Clemson fares up front against South Carolina’s defensive line will go a long way in determining the outcome of this game. South Carolina is No. 13 in the country in scoring defense (17.45 points), while Clemson is No. 4 in the country in scoring offense (44.64). Protecting quarterback Tajh Boyd against the likes of Jadeveon Clowney will be imperative. South Carolina has won the past three games in the series, but the Tigers are playing with the hopes of receiving an at-large BCS bid. With a win over Clemson, Spurrier would become the winningest coach in school history.
“I didn’t know that,” Swinney said. “That’s a little bit more pressure on there, huh?”
The most pressure will be on his offensive line.
Clowney is the anchor of South Carolina’s defense, but Swinney said all of the linemen are NFL-caliber players. South Carolina has 34 sacks this year, the best in the SEC and eighth in the nation. Clowney leads the way with 8.5 sacks (tied for 18th in the country) and Chaz Sutton has five, while 12 different players have figured into the total. Clowney ranks third in the SEC with both his 8.5 sacks (0.85/game) and with 17.0 tackles for loss (1.70/game).
“We’re going to have to play as good as we’ve played all year,” Swinney said. “Their whole entire front is NFL guys -- all of ‘em, and some of their backups. Clowney would probably be a top-five pick this year if he could come out. ... They’re just very physical, they get pressure with their four-man front and that allows them to do some other things on the back end from a coverage standpoint and allows them to play some man coverage and disrupt timing. This is as good of a group as there is out there in the country, there’s no doubt about it.
“We’re a bunch of young bucks over there, got one senior,” Swinney said. “But these guys have played well throughout the year and I’m confident with them. They’re going to have to bring their A-game.”
Last year, the Gamecocks’ defense held the Tigers to 153 yards of offense and had five sacks. Carolina allowed just three points and 72 yards in the second half.
“We played well defensively last year,” Spurrier said. “Hopefully that will give us some confidence that we can hold these guys down. I think they're a better offense this year than they were last year at this time.”
It’s going to have to be, because South Carolina’s defense has gotten better, too.