This isn’t the South Carolina that Clemson has grown accustomed to.
These Gamecocks (8-3) have reached a new level. They’re the SEC East champs for the first time in school history. They’re No. 3 in the country with a school-record 36 sacks. And they’re finally good enough to string together two wins over Clemson for the first time since winning three straight from 1968-70.
The roles are reversed this year heading into Saturday’s rivalry game in Death Valley. That doesn’t mean too much, though. With Clemson -- one of the most baffling programs in the country -- you never know what to expect. Last year, South Carolina entered the game unranked, on a three-game losing streak and with only six wins. The Tigers were ranked No. 18, Atlantic Division champs, and had won six straight games.
Didn’t matter. Never does. Clemson fumbled and flopped, losing 34-17.
This year, the Tigers have been inconsistent on offense and won with one of the country’s best defenses. If they’re going to pull off an upset on Saturday, that’s the formula they’ll need again.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney didn’t have to watch much film of South Carolina to recognize the biggest difference in the Gamecocks’ success this year.
“No. 21, Marcus Lattimore,” Swinney said. “He wasn't there last year. He's a very, very good player. He's got 19 touchdowns, rushed for over 1,000 yards. That's been the difference in their football team.”
Lattimore set the school record for single-season touchdowns in the 69-24 undoing of Troy, scoring three times to run his total to 19 for the season, breaking Harold Green’s mark of 16 set in 1987. He needs just one more to tie Tennessee’s Reggie Cobb (1987) for the SEC freshman scoring record.
Lattimore, though, isn’t the only problem for Clemson’s defense. Sophomore receiver Alshon Jeffery broke the school record for single-season receiving yards in Saturday’s win over Troy, surpassing a 1,143-yard season by Sidney Rice in 2005. It’s the first time South Carolina has had a 1,000-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver in the same season.
“We live and die with our guys up front,” Swinney said. “That's where we build our defense. Those guys have played very good. We've had to play some other good offenses. I do think this is the best one we'll have played yet as far as when we played them and most efficient.
“But they present a big challenge. But it still comes down to being able to block, tackle and get off blocks. So if our guys up front will play well and do a good job of minimizing the effectiveness of their running back, then I think that gives us certainly a better chance to win the game. If they can stay balanced, that makes for a long day.”
And an even longer offseason.