As Dabo Swinney prepares to take his number one ranked Clemson Tigers two hours south to Columbia to take on the South Carolina Gamecocks in a high noon shootout Saturday two things are certain: First, this weeks match-up lacks the high profile nature of years past.
Gone is Steve Spurrier. Gone is the prime-time spotlight and gone is the national draw. With one team entering the game at 3-8 and another entering at 11-0. One team coming off one of the worst losses in the history of their program and the other with an 11-0 record and looking to position itself for the playoffs. These two programs are heading opposite directions entering this weeks Palmetto Bowl.
Second, for coach Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers—none of that matters.
"They said that last week—that this was the national championship game for Wake Forest, but listen that was our national championship game too. This game isn't anymore important to them than it is us, I can promise you," Swinney said Tuesday. "All I know is we're gonna get everybody's best. That just comes with the territory and our guys know that and really that's why we don't get distracted by the opponent. We gonna get everybody's best effort each and every week. But really it's just not our focus.
"You know, these guys are really gonna play hard and these guys aren't. It's really about how we play. The type of effort and preparation. The mentality and toughness. It's all about our execution and playing physical. That's what we talk about—playing to a standard, regardless of the other teams record, or what time we're kicking off at, the uniforms, whose in the stands, whose not. Those things cannot be a part of the equation from a preparation standpoint and a mentality standpoint for the competitor—maybe for the fans, but never the competitor. If those things are a factor you're never gonna be consistent.
"All I know is that South Carolina is going to play their tails off—I have no reason to think otherwise. But so are we."
The Gamecocks enter this weeks game ranked 101st in the nation in total offense, however Swinney believes that this Gamecock team may be the most difficult one for his defense (ranked 5th in the nation in total defense) to prepare for in part due to personnel and in part due to the fact that they have been a little bit of everything this season.
"A lot of challenges offensively, as far as our defense is concerned getting ready for them because they present a lot of different things," Swinney continued. "Obviously, they've had two different coaches, different people calling plays and they've done a lot. We've seen everything from them—the mid-line, zone read, zone read option, empty, power. I mean, you name it and we've seen it so it's a lot to get ready for with these guys and they've got some good players.
"Pharaoh Cooper is as good a player as there is in the SEC and as good a player as there is out there in the country. This is a dynamic guy that they're gonna make him touch the ball in a lot of different ways. Whether the wildcat or throwing it down the field or reverses, you name it. He's a heck of a football player. Wilds is a top-20 running back in the history of the school...so they've got a ton of good players and we have a ton of respect for them."
Defensively South Carolina enters the game ranked 90th in the country giving up an average of 422.09 yards per game. Even with those numbers being down from previous years which saw South Carolina dominate opposing offenses Swinney still sees a dangerous group that can cause problems for the Tigers.
"Defensively they have a ton of depth on the defensive line. I don't know that we've played anybody that has played as many guys. I mean, they've played 12 guys—every bit of it up from. They are three deep at every position and they play 'em. I mean, they play all those guys at some point. They have got a mixture of things that those guys can do. They are good at linebacker and in the secondary they have gotten more aggressive down the stretch and have been able to make some plays.
"Everybody wants to talk about last week's game. We'll that was one game and The Citadel's a good team. They're difficult. They're difficult for anybody to play. I promise you they've done a heck of a job down there. This is a team that went to Texas A&M played a seven point game and had a chance to win it. Went to Tennessee and played a three point game and had a chance to win it. Florida at home and had a chance to win it. So we've got a lot of respect for these guys."
This game has everything on the line for both programs. For the Gamecocks it is a chance to salvage a season that has gone sideways and for the Tigers it is a chance to put an exclamation mark on a special season.
With the countdown clocks in the WestZone complex counting down Swinney understands the importance of this weeks game, however he also understands it is just one more step in the journey.
"The bottom line for us is it's the next goal. We've got a chance to achieve another goal on our board, which is something that is important to us. But our focus is on finishing strong—it's just that simple. Have strong finish and really trying to play the best four quarters of football this Saturday. Just put our best four quarters together and that's what we want to do. And accelerate through the finish line."
SWINNEY'S NOT MISSING SPURRIER
This Saturday will mark the first Clemson/ Carolina game that Dabo Swinney has been head coach of that will not feature the Head Ball Coach calling plays on the opposite sideline.
When asked Tuesday if he would miss having Spurrier on the sidelines for the rivalry Swinney just doesn't care.
"Nah. I'm not worried about South Carolina. I'm worried about playing a great game. I mean, I don't get excited about the opponents coach before pregame. I'm dialed in on getting in the game. I'm gonna miss Coach Spurrier from a college football standpoint. I think he's one of the best that's ever walked the sidelines. He'll resurface somewhere, I have no doubt about that. But, our conversations were always short and brief.