This one might not get the national love of UCLA-USC, Ohio State-Michigan or Auburn-Alabama, but there aren’t many rivalries in the country more fun than Clemson vs. South Carolina. The two programs share virtually nothing in common aside from geography, so picking sides isn’t tough. But the war of words between Steve Spurrier and Dabo Swinney over the years has elevated the proceedings from national afterthought to comedy gold. While the on-field product has been owned by the Gamecocks, the arrival of Deshaun Watson at Clemson and the underperformance by South Carolina this season makes for a far more interesting matchup between the lines, too. ACC reporter David Hale and SEC reporter Alex Scarborough take a look at how the 2014 installment of Clemson vs. South Carolina breaks down.
Key to victory for South Carolina: The Gamecocks offense isn’t terrible with Mike Davis running the football and Pharoh Cooper at receiver. AJ Cann is one of the best linemen in the country, as a matter of fact. But where South Carolina goes wrong is when it turns the football over, particularly in the passing game. In six wins, quarterback Dylan Thompson has three interceptions. In four losses, he has eight picks. There’s simply not enough on the defensive side of the ball for South Carolina to give away free possessions.
Key to victory for Clemson: For the Tigers, this isn’t a complicated formula. The defensive front needs to stuff South Carolina’s ground game -- something Clemson has done effectively all season, save the opener against Georgia. The offense needs to run the ball, something Wayne Gallman and Tyshon Dye have done a far better job of the past few weeks. And, most importantly, the QB needs to protect the football. If it’s Watson, Clemson fans will feel a bit more comfortable. If it’s Cole Stoudt, then there are legitimate concerns. But regardless, South Carolina’s pass rush has been nonexistent this season, which should help the Tigers play it safe, even if Stoudt is the one pulling the trigger.
X-factor for South Carolina: History is most definitely on the Gamecocks’ side. Spurrier, as he’s quick to remind everyone, has won the last five contests against his in-state rivals. In fact, none have been close as South Carolina has won each by at least two possessions. The players have changed, but Spurrier clearly has something on Swinney. Rest assured that the Head Ball Coach will have a few tricks up his sleeve as he attempts to extend his bragging rights another year.
X-Factor for Clemson: Is it an X-factor if it’s the only thing anyone is talking about? Watson is clearly the difference maker in this game, and whether he takes the field or not (he’s currently day-to-day with a knee injury) likely tells the story of whether the Tigers’ offense can move the ball enough to win. Clemson has certainly found ample ways to lose this game in recent years, but for Tigers fans, Watson represents a changing of the guard. He brings an air of confidence that Clemson has clearly been lacking, but he also brings by far the Tigers’ most potent offensive threat. But perhaps as big a question as whether he’ll even play is whether that knee will afford him the mobility that has been so crucial to his success.
Scarborough’s favorite moment from the rivalry: Sorry, South Carolina, but great games have great finishes, and it’s amazing to think that for as long as these two teams have been playing one another there has been only one game end with a score at the buzzer. That seminal moment belonged to the leg of Clemson kicker Mark Buchholz, whose 35-yard try was true, giving the Tigers a come-from-behind win in Columbia in 2007.
Hale’s favorite moment from the rivalry: It’s probably wrong to say it’s my favorite moment, but the fight between the two teams 10 years ago certainly turned the rivalry from a local one into a national one. Of course, the best moments of this rivalry have always had little to do with what’s happening on the field. In the parlance of Steve Spurrier, “talking season” is always more fun, and perhaps no rivalry in American has had more pointed and amusing jabs than this one (again, largely courtesy of the Ol’ Ball Coach). Is there a second Death Valley besides the one at LSU? Now that’s some expert trolling.