When I think about this year's state rivalry game, the old proverb about a house built on the sand versus the one on a rock comes to mind. Beginning in 1999, the Gamecocks have attempted to build a football empire on the shoulders of an iconic coach. In each case, that coach became what the program was really all about. In each case, the program got to places it hadn't really ever been. In each case, the building came quickly tumbling to the ground when things got tough. When the identity of your program and nearly every ounce of relevancy beyond the borders of South Carolina rests on your coach, you are playing with a shaky hand. Meanwhile, the Tiger program has been built around the idea of family and the players. Sure, Dabo Swinney is in the public eye and is the mouthpiece of the program, but you won't find any 100 foot posters of him hanging from the stadium. You won't find his face taking up 90% of the season schedule poster either. You also won't find the program busted on the side of the road the way the one in Columbia is right now. Dabo continued marching with the plan despite enduring the best stretch of football South Carolina has ever seen and may ever see. He endured the storm of the five game losing streak with the firm faith that his way would eventually win out. Now the time has come for the harvest and chicken is on the menu!
By random chance, I got a chance to hear Steve Spurrier, Jr. talking to a handful of Charleston area Gamecock fans before the season started. A lot was said about the young talent and turning things around in Columbia, and he had a lot more to say about how the "Clemson game would be set right" this year. I wondered then how this could be when they really had two difference makers total coming back from the previous year. They had Pharoah Cooper on offense and Skai Moore on defense. Meanwhile, all the guys Clemson rode to victory on offense last year were back and the defense still had Kearse, Alexander, Lawson, and Boulware at the minimum. Regardless, what is left of the Gamecock faithful and their team will come at this game with all they have left to give. It will be up to the Tigers to not allow hope to linger and set fire to the remaining fragments of the Spurrier program.
Clemson appeared to have a huge edge in 1990 when the Gamecocks limped into Death Valley having lost 3 out of 4 games (including one to the Citadel). The Tigers had the #1 defense in the land and were 8-2, but they allowed the Gamecocks to make a real game out of it before finally securing a 24-15 victory. The 1999 season, of course, featured a winless Gamecock squad (on a 20 game losing streak at the time) against a seemingly resurgent Tiger program under Tommy Bowden and Rich Rodriguez. Lou Holtz appeared to hold a few key players out of the preceding game in hopes of salvaging some of that first year by upsetting the Tigers. The Gamecocks again played inspired football and it took a huge 4th and 10 pass from Woody Dantzler to Rod Gardner to put the game away. However, I'm not sure the gap between the teams has ever been as large as this year in my lifetime. Any ideas of mercy or compassion should be put away after enduring that streak.
Clemson offense versus USCjr defense: There is only one hope for the Gamecocks on this side of the ball: turnovers. Turnovers are the one area where the Tiger offense has struggled some during the season. The one good win on the Gamecock schedule against ACC Coastal champion UNC was made possible thanks to three key interceptions in the red zone. Clemson simply needs to play a clean game and take care of the ball and the rest will take care of itself.
The Gamecocks have struggled all year in pass defense and even made Grayson Lambert look like a NFL player. They lack a difference maker in the front four and once again rely on sending extra guys to generate real pressure on the quarterback. I'm not sure how they hope to defend Deshaun Watson and what should be a full strength (minus Mike Williams, of course) offense. Wayne Gallman and Tyrone Crowder are slated to return to bolster the ground attack. Even Ray Ray McCloud looks like he will be available to add depth to a truly stacked wide receiver rotation. G-Hop got in on the big play act last week and now Clemson has 7 players over 200 yards receiving this year. The Gamecocks have 2. To me, unless you have a defense that can handle the Clemson run game with a light box and minimal blitzing, you are going to struggle to contain it. 500+ yard games have been a regularity since the monsoon game against Notre Dame and many of those have come against defenses stronger than the one USCjr employs. Clemson's opponent is truly itself.
Clemson defense versus USCjr. offense: I am quite certain the Gamecocks will use as much Syracuse stuff as they possibly can in hopes of finding a run game against the Tigers. I'm sure the Tigers will see Orth, Nunez, and Cooper taking snaps at different points in the game. Thankfully the Tigers will have Mackensie Alexander back to shadow Cooper when he splits out. Eliminating Cooper would render the Gamecock passing game nearly toothless down the field. The next order of business is taking care of the backs and tight end in the passing game. The Gamecocks have really struggled on offense against the better defenses on their schedule comparable to Clemson. As long as the Tigers play gap sound and force USCjr to put 8-12 plays together to score, the Tigers should be just fine. The all trick play alert will surely be on in all phases. I expect to see double passes, fake kicks, onside kicks, crazy formations, etc. As long as the Tigers hold strong early, the emotional surge should dwindle. There won't be much left for the Gamecocks to fight for if the Tigers can get up a few scores early like last week.
Special Teams: We all know the deal here. Just don't blow it is about all I hope for these days. Thankfully Huegel and the field goal team has kept his phase from being an utter disaster this season. As mentioned earlier, I would be on high alert for kick fakes and onside kicks. I would also expect the Gamecocks to send the house on punt block. I certainly would since Clemson has shown little teeth in the punt return game. Meanwhile, the Tigers fail to put any pressure at all on opposing punters and the result is we seem to face Ray Guy every week.
Overall: It is just too bad that Rock Hill and Calhoun County ran out of stud players for the Gamecocks to get. Their "splash" recruits that fueled that run all came from guys in Gamecock strongholds or somebody growing up with feathers. There is only one way to treat a rival and that is to beat them as badly as possible whenever possible. 1989 and 2003 can't happen enough to quench my thirst.