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Previewing Clemson - South Carolina with the Enemy

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Ahead of a must-win matchup for Clemson, we took  some time out of preparing for Turkey Day to talk with the fine folks over at Garnet and Black Attack, SB Nation's South Carolina site. A big thanks to Gamecock Man for answering our questions and our answers to their questions will be up soon.

STS:  Before the season started everyone predicted South Carolina would take a step back in terms of talent. What has happened to cause it to be such a drastic drop off?

GABA: I'm assuming you're talking about the defense since the offense is arguably better than it was in 2013. On defense, there was expected to be a dropoff, but like you say, it's been more drastic than expected. We knew that we'd lack talent at defensive end and that we'd be young in the secondary, but the expectation was that this would be a mediocre defense overall, not one of the worst in major college football. The problems have been myriad, and most of them owe to questionable coaching decisions. I'll just give one example. For most of the season, Lorenzo Ward had his two best linebackers, Skai Moore and Jonathan Walton, playing the same position. When he finally moved Moore inside to get both on the field at the same time against Florida, it made a huge difference. It was something that could have been done last spring and that absolutely should have been done after the first poor performance from the guys Ward had playing inside linebacker earlier in the season. Instead, he let us lose a ton of shootouts before making the change.

STS: Dylan Thompson has suffered some criticism this year though his numbers seem to be close to his career totals. What's your assessment of how he has performed this year?

GABA: I think he's performed well. He's not perfect by any means. His mechanics are somewhat flawed; CU fans who are curious about these flaws will find this video really informative. He also frequently struggles when the game is on the line in the fourth quarter, although hopefully his game-winning TD run against Florida will help his confidence in crunch time. All of that said, he's spearheaded some very good offensive performances this year, and I think he compares well against the better quarterbacks in the SEC. Unfortunately for Thompson, his defense has put a ton of pressure on him, and while he's been good enough to keep Carolina in several shootouts, he hasn't quite been good enough to win all of them. As we all know, regardless of whether it's his fault or not, the quarterback often takes a lot of criticism when a team is struggling, and that's what has happened to Dylan this year.

STS: How does Thompson and Spurrier go about attacking this Clemson defense, one that might be the best y'all have seen this year?

GABA: The challenge against Clemson appears to be that while Carolina's receivers are good enough to win some battles against the Clemson secondary, the Clemson front seven should be able to shut down Carolina's run game as well as put pressure on Thompson. I think that Spurrier's game plan will include moving the pocket around on roll outs in an attempt to negate Clemson's pass rush and get the receivers the ball on the edge. I also think that Carolina needs Dylan to make good reads on the base read-option plays. Dylan isn't as mobile as Connor Shaw and isn't going to kill Clemson on QB keepers like Shaw did last year, but he needs to have a couple of good runs early in the read-option game in order to make things somewhat manageable for Carolina's run game. Carolina also likes to use a WR screen option on the read-option plays, and I think Carolina needs to be able to get some production out of those throws on first and second down. Carolina can't expect to move the ball if it's getting stuffed on first down and then dropping back five or seven steps looking to throw downfield, and it won't move the ball on first down if it's too vanilla.

STS: On the other side, how would you attack this South Carolina offense if you are Clemson's defense?

GABA: I think the main thing is that Clemson needs to show discipline on the read-option plays mentioned above. The ends and linebackers must defend the run with discipline and the corners must get off their blocks on the screen passes. If Clemson creates favorable down-distance situations, it can rattle Thompson. This is what Florida was able to do two weeks ago after the first two drives. Clemson isn't as good in the secondary as Florida but is at least as good and arguably better up front, so the Tigers should be able to replicate the Gators' performance to some extent, depending on how well the two teams execute.

STS: The South Carolina defense as well, not been good, what scares you about Clemson's offense assuming we have a competent QB playing? Basically not Cole Stoudt.

GABA: If Watson plays and his mobility isn't too limited, CU could do a lot of damage utilizing a mobile quarterback. Carolina's defense has had myriad problems this season, but defending mobile quarterbacks as well as wildcat packages has probably been the biggest one. Carolina has done a little better the past two weeks after making some much-needed lineup changes at linebacker, though.

STS: The past few games between Clemson and y'all have seen the Gamecocks dominate the turnover battle. Is this something you expect to continue or would it be more of a fluke?

GABA: Prior to last year, I don't think it was a fluke. Fom 2009-2012, Carolina had some advantages over Clemson that helped it win the turnover battle. As a product not just of recruiting but also of the two respective S&C programs, the Gamecocks were a stronger team on the defensive front up until last year, and the ability of Carolina's pass rush to rattle CU's quarterbacks played a big role in producing mistakes. I think you also have to look at the guys the two teams have had playing quarterback; Shaw and to a lesser extent Thompson have been careful with the football, whereas Tajh Boyd was a quarterback who made a lot of mistakes against teams with active defensive fronts.

Last year, I think Clemson had closed the gap somewhat on the defensive front differences, and I'll readily admit that some of CU's errors were unforced, particularly the early interception on what I thought was an ill-conceived trick play on a drive where Clemson was moving the ball well the old-fashioned way, and then the two fumbled punts later in the game.

Heading into this year's game, Clemson has the defensive personnel in place to win the turnover battle. The Tigers clearly have the better defense and could do some damage if they rattle Thompson. Of course, whether CU wins the turnover battle depends a lot on how the quarterbacks perform, and Carolina will have a definite advantage in that department if Watson doesn't play. I'm not sure who has the advantage if Watson plays; Watson is definitely more talented than Thompson and will likely have a great career, but whether a hobbled true freshman Watson outperforms a healthy fifth-year senior Thompson is unclear.

STS: Finally there have been a lot of rumors and chatter about Spurrier leaving after this year, what are your thoughts on Spurrier and how long he'll be around in Columbia?

GABA: I don't have a good answer to that question. It wouldn't totally surprise me if he retires after this season, particularly if he goes out somewhat on top with another win over Clemson. I don't think he's the kind of guy to leave on a sour note, at least not after a single bad season, so if Carolina loses this weekend, I think he'll stay. To be honest, though, it's really hard to say. Spurrier says the same thing every time he's asked about retirement, and it's hard to get a good read on how he really feels.