It's Monday's like today that I'm relieved I don't work in the state of South Carolina. Many Tiger faithful got out of bed this morning, like they have done the three years prior on this day, and hoped all this was just a bad dream. Unfortunately it's not, and once again Clemson has fallen to their counterparts in Columbia leaving a sour taste in an otherwise very solid season.
On this night, quiet contemplation and disappointment dominated. With good reason. Clemson coaches and players believed this would be the year they broke through and ended South Carolina’s three-game win streak in the programs’ bitter rivalry. Instead, they were left to process a 27-17 defeat, giving South Carolina its longest rivalry winning streak since 1951-54. Clemson is left with an unfamiliar and uneasy feeling – a second-class citizen inside its own state.
Teflon Tigers. Is it fair? Maybe not. Clemson did find a way to win 10 regular season games this year, but when your best win of the season is arguably against Ball State, it's hard to really be thrilled with how the season played out. The two games this team was tested in this season (Florida State and South Carolina) Clemson laid down late in the game and lost both. To me there didn't seem to be a lot of heart or toughness on Saturday night. Clemson had a monumental opportunity. National television, in-state rival that had stomped them the three years prior, and a shot at the Sugar Bowl on the line. There were no upcoming distractions of an ACC title game to fall back on. This was it, the season was made or broken on the game Saturday and Clemson squandered their chance.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier won his 65th game in eight seasons, surpassing Rex Enright for most victories by a South Carolina coach. The Gamecocks finished with 10 victories for a second consecutive season, a first in program history. "When we play Clemson, they don't seem to play very well," Spurrier said.
There were some mind-numbingly frustrating events Saturday night that I just can't shake. Andre Ellington getting blown up by a Gamecock defensive back and not ONE Clemson player came over to pick him up or push the USCe DB out of the way. Where's the fight? Where's the I got your back let's go to war? When I saw that event transpire I knew that we were ultimately doomed. Another: The defense's complete inability to get a stop on third and a mile. How many long long third down conversions did South Carolina complete in the second half? It felt like 3 or 4 or 5. Sure there were some suspect pass interference calls, but when your defense is on the field for almost the entire second half, you know you are in deep trouble.
The Tigers' inability to move the ball led to an absurd edge in possession time for the Gamecocks, who ended the game with a 39:58 to 20:02 advantage. Clemson kept the score within six until late in the fourth quarter when its defense eventually broke down. Thompson found South Carolina receiver Bruce Ellington for a 13-yard touchdown -- his second score of the night -- with 4:17 to play. The touchdown gave South Carolina the final 10-point margin.
The offense was hardly better. Outside of perhaps the Wake Forest game last year, Tajh played his worst game of his career. I don't put all the blame on him though, Chad Morris' sometimes mind-bottling (literally bottled my mind) game plan was something out of the Twilight Zone. 5 receptions between Sammy and Nuk? Virtually no plays trying to stretch the field on end arounds or screen plays? Refusing to put more than one blocker on arguably the best DE in the country? Man o man. Not sure if the gameplan going in was worse or the adjustments (or lack thereof) from the Chad were more frustrating. Sure South Carolina's defense was stout, but when you are paying an offensive coordinator more than $1 million, you expect more than 18 points at home in the biggest game of the year.
Chad Morris on regrouping the offense: "I think the one thing you’ve got to look at is, you hurt for our seniors. They’ve done some great things for this program. Those things won’t be overshadowed, some of the success they’ve achieved in the last four years here, not winning a state championship in the last four years here is something that hurts. Hurts them, hurts us all, we all feel it. We’ve all got to live with it. And we understand that."
Clemson fans are frustrated, including myself, but what happens now? Does Clemson make changes at DB coach (they sure as hell should) or S&C coach (they sure as hell should - but not likely to happen)? Most likely not at this point and what we have is going to only be solved through recruiting. Clemson doesn't have many players on defense that South Carolina has and that was in many respects the difference Saturday night. The Tigers are going to have to upgrade at DE and DB if they want to have any success preventing the Gamecocks from winning a fifth straight game.
Gamecock fans absolutely love Dabo Swinney. They hope he gets an extension. Clemson’s a wonderful school. It will always have a solid football program. It just can’t compete with the Gamecocks in any way at this point. They are slowly becoming a part of what the fans hold to so dearly. History.
On to the Bowl game. As of now, Clemson is most likely headed to the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta against either UGA or LSU. If Oklahoma finds a way to lose on Saturday to TCU and Kent State doesn't sneak into the top 16, then Clemson could very well likely be Sugar Bowl bound. The Sugar Bowl would be deciding between a 10-2 Clemson team or a 9-3 Oklahoma team to face Florida (who is already locked into the Sugar). Either way Clemson will be facing a top 4 SEC team in their bowl game (unless FSU loses to GT in the ACC title game). Are we always going to have a bitter taste in our mouth after this season? Most likely. But a win in the bowl game against a very good SEC opponent could go a long way to building momentum for 2013.