I think we are all pleased that Dabo Swinney, in his first full season at the helm of the Clemson football program, finally meshed the talent that Clemson has recruited with more intensity, enthusiasm, and a winning attitude to completely transform the program from where Tom Bowden left it just over a year ago after getting crushed by Alabama, giving one away to a bad Maryland team, then looking completely inept against Wake Forest. There is nothing like promoting your receivers coach to clean up an underachieving mess. It was also refreshing to see Swinney remove the Mad Scientist from his role, add Pearman, Steele, etc... to the staff, and come out with lots of energy all season. Interestingly, Swinney's contract calls for the 40 year-old coach to receive a nice (approx $1 million) bonus due to Clemson earning a spot in next month's championship game. Not too shabby for the former Crimson Tide walk-on. This incentive-laden contract really was beneficial for both parties.
The Virginia game was, by itself, not entirely impressive other than the fact that Clemson came in and was able to to take care of business and lock up sole possession of 1st place in the Atlantic regardless of how BC plays next week. The defense was obviously confused by the Wildcat formation and the misdirection/trickery from the Wahoos. The defense, led by senior Ricky Sapp, did get it together in the second half to pitch a shutout over the final 30 minutes. I was happy to see this group get after the Virginia QB late in the game and record a half dozen sacks in the final period of the game. Clemson also forced two fumbles on the afternoon, giving this defense 29 turnovers this season. Winning the turnover battle has been extremely important for the Tiger this year because it limits the opponent's touches while keeping them on their heels all game long. I was happy to see Da'Quan Bowers in the game for a handful of plays Saturday. Hopefully he will be ready to go this weekend against Carolina then next again against Tech. Bowers gives us a lot of athleticism and creates depth along the defensive line. Clemson was aided in the second half by an injury to Mikell Simpsonon Virginia's final TD to end the half. Al Groh elaborated after the game on this loss and the how it limited the ability of the Cavaliers and their wildcat strategy.
C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford combined for two great senior efforts to conclude their Death Valley careers, with both tallying touchdowns and Ford breaking the 100 yard receiving threshold on the day. Kyle Parker again had a steady day, compleing 19 of 26 passes for 234 yards and 2 tds. His maturation over the course of this season combined with an exceptionally strong arm and decent mobility set Parker up to be a great collegiate QB should he chose to avoid professional baseball. I was a little disappointed not to see Willy Korn in a mop-up role. His future at Clemson appears to be all but sealed with Parker's success this season and Tajh Boyd becoming available next season. Both Andre Ellington and Jamie Harperboth ran well here, with Ellington punching the rock in for a 3rd quarter TD. Once again, Clemson got good consistent play from the TE's, with Michael Palmer having three grabs and Dwayne Allen bringing down an early TD catch. Rendrick Taylor got a couple looks Saturday. I really expected more out of Taylor over his CU career, but was pleased to see him get some work on senior day.
All in all, this team has played hard all season long. Clemson never gave up, even after the embarrasment at Maryland. In fact, I firmly believe that the meltdown at College Park may have spurned the offensive coaches to return to a more basic and focussed offensive strategy, featuring only the proven playmakers (Spiller, Ford, and the TE's). Since laying an egg against the Terps, Clemson has not been defeated. The defense has continued its solid play and the offense has scored 34 or more points in each of those six contests. The improved play calling and execution coupled with a more focussed attack has silenced both critics of Swinney and Steele. As we pointed out earlier in the season,inexperience from the offensive staff as well as the QB position was a huge question mark, and both areas should immprove as each member gets more real game repetitions week in and week out.
On to our feathered friends in Columbia. South Carolina's season began well and has really tapered off over the balance of the games. After opening the year with a 5-1 record, the Gamecocks (6-5 overall, 3-5 in the SEC) have lost 4 of the past 5 games, with the lone win coming in a low-scoring affair against Vanderbilt. At some points this season, USC has looked like a really good team. Other times, South Carolina has struggled against teams they probably should have beaten handily (Vandy, Arkansas, NCST, and Kentucky come to mind). SOS has openly stated that he has and will continue to have more influence on playcalling and game flow.
This year's team features a talented defense and improved offense. Eric Norwood, school leader in sacks, is the best player on the team. He is a great athlete who runs well and has a nose for the football. Clifton Geathers is a pretty good defensive end, and the secondary (lead by Chris Culliver) rotates in a lot of young but talented DB's. Offensively, this team is much improved from a year ago. Steven Garcia getting more reps and actually participating in spring practice this year has paid off, as Garcia looks night and day better than he did last year. South Carolina has also found a couple of good, tall freshman receivers in Tori Gurley and Alshon Jeffery to compliment senior Moe Brown. Spurrier has repeatedly thrown jump balls the Jeffery, who has 29 receptions and 6 TD's on the season (including 3 TDs in a dominant performance against Kentucky). I really like TE Weslye Saunders. He is freaking huge (6'5", 280 lbs) is a good blocker and catches the ball well. This is one guy who can do some damage if he gets a full head of steam. Up front, bringing in Eric Wolford as offensive line coach has helped tremendously, as South Carolina's OL has improved dramatically since a year ago. Ellis Johnson (former Clemson, Alabama, and Mississippi State DC and Citadel HC) has been successful everywhere he has coached, and was also a quality hire for the Old Ball Coach.
Most of South Carolina's woes arise from depth and experience issues. While South Carolina has improved up front, their rushing attack is still sub-par. Kenny Miles, Jarvis Giles, and Brian Maddox share the carries for this team. I continually question why Maddox gets as many touches as he does because the two freshmen (Miles and Giles) are unquestionably better ball carriers than Maddux. South Carolina's size at receiver and tight end scares me a bit. Clemson likes to play man/man-press coverage, so this size advantage could be a big deal this weekend. Defensively, South Carolina is quick, but thin. The way to attack this defense is head on, as the Gamecocks lack quality depth at linebacker and up front. If you can get the starters tired, there is a nice opportunity to pound this team to death. USC's secondary is good and can hold its own against most any squad. The Alabama game was an excellent illustration of this point, as the Tide and Greg McElroy could do nothing through the air while Mark Ingram averaged 10 ypc and picked up almost 250 yards on the ground.
We will have much more insight on this contest as the week progresses. We are also looking to work with the Gamecock SBNation blog, Garnet And Black Attack, to provide some extra coverage and segments for this week's contest.
Below are highlights from last season's contest.