I remember vividly a common excuse for Gamecock ineptitude against Clemson after their 1992 entry into the SEC. "We are too beat up by the end of the year!" "We should play this game earlier!" These were common thoughts among the feathered faithful after going through their "Orange Crush" stretch in the schedule. For the young folks out there, that was when Tennessee was actually worth a damn in football, and the HBC was running the Gator program that just became the laughing stock of the country by losing at home to Georgia Southern. Truth be told, there was probably some merit to the conversation. We'll look more into that later in this piece.
For the most part, the two teams have been fairly even in talent through the last 20 years. The last real contrast was during the end of the 80s and into the early 90s when Clemson had a significant talent edge. Even evisceration like 2003 and 2004 wasn't a result of a huge talent gap. 2003 was a case of a red hot Clemson team exploiting a very poor defensive game plan by the Gamecocks. 2004 had a major turnover right off the bat totally set the tone when David Dunham crushed Cory Boyd. Most of the time one team is playing well going in and the other isn't, which was the case in Clemson losses in 2001, 2006, 2010, and 2011. The Gamecocks were a more complete team in 2001, but it wasn't a huge gap and Clemson had its chances to win. Clemson was a more complete team in 2006, but had unraveled down the stretch.
The biggest outlier game was the 2009 game where the Gamecocks were coming in losers of 3 straight by 10 points or more. Clemson, meanwhile, was hot and had just clinched the Atlantic the week before. In my mind, this game was the biggest missed opportunity for Clemson in a long time. A fourth loss in a row at that point, including another loss to upstart coach Dabo Swinney, could have done serious damage to Spurrier's program. Instead, it breathed life into his restoration project and helped offset the egg they laid against UConn in the bowl game.
Clemson played a very sloppy game and a Jamie Harper fumble on a good looking drive already up 7-0 helped keep the coots in the game, which they eventually turned and took over. Coincidentally, that was the last time the Gamecocks played an SEC team prior to the Clemson game and was their ONLY win against Clemson since 2002 under those circumstances. The win in 2006 came after they got a non-conference win prior to the Clemson game, something that became an annual event beginning in 2010.
It is hard to ignore the numbers since that schedule tweak was made. SCU has gone 5-6 in the last 11 games against Clemson, but four of those five wins featured an overmatched non-conference (usually FCS level) opponent the game before. All things being equal in terms of talent, which for the most part it has been in that stretch, you cannot discount this as a factor in the results and the turning of the tide in the series. It was certainly a big deal last year as USC was afforded the chance to rest a banged up Clowney against Wofford. He had an extra boost in his step as a result, but there is no way he wasn't playing through the injury had that been a game with an SEC team going in. His play last year was a major game changer, as we all know, and offset the Clemson advantage on the perimeter with Hopkins and Watkins against the USC corners. Clowney at 15-20% less health wise or potentially out of the game due to further injury could have made a major difference. We will never know, but it is worth contemplating.
Now, for the first time in my memory, Clemson and USC both had non-conference FCS foes the week before THE GAME. It will be very interesting to see if there is any noticeable difference in Clemson's attack on either side having had an extra week to look into the Gamecocks. It has to be an added advantage for Brent Venables who no doubt carried a very small call sheet into The Citadel game. They never admit to working ahead, but it is hard to imagine both sides not doing so whenever they can afford it. The teams are evenly matched with each having slight advantages in certain areas. It will come down to who can execute and limit the other's strengths and take care of the ball, as we've heard from members of both staffs repeatedly. Gone is the "Orange Crush" and gone is the meaningful conference matchup for Clemson the week prior. Likewise, gone should be the excuses from either side when the dust settles on Saturday night.
What are your thoughts on the schedule factor?