Oh, rivalry week. It is both my favorite (Thanksgiving) and least favorite (social media) week of the entire year. I spent middle and high school in the Columbia area, which planted in me the unique blend of fermented hatred for everything about the city and school, tied with the proper perspective to get along and even have rational, friendly discussions with Gamecock fans. I escaped to Clemson in 2009, just in time to avoid them for that unspeakable streak, so my perspective was not soured as it must have been for any Tigers stuck in the Midlands during that time. Thus I can say from the heart: y’all are cool when your expectations are healthily low, and the relative harmony it manifests is why I still wish perpetual futility (well, more of it than you already withstand) upon you.
Watching 2017’s South Carolina team leaves me with the exact same question I had in 2016, and thus this piece will resemble last year’s preview far more than I prefer. A year ago I heard all about the supposed improvement, particularly on defense, but when I actually got around to watching the product on the field I saw turnover luck and weak opponents inflating the win total, which masked a lot of the personnel issues. Here in 2017 I do see actual defensive improvement (currently ranked 37th in S&P+), but again a grossly inflated record thanks to an even weaker and incredibly fortuitous schedule; an 8-3 record should reflect a top 40 team, not a middling 63rd-ranked team.
2016 was an improved defense relative to 2015 thanks to a change in philosophy brought by Will Muschamp, but Clemson was able to expose the Gamecocks mercilessly from the opening snap. A year later there is tangible improvement in the defensive front, but the same problems are present in this match-up; the only difference is whether Clemson can consistently exploit them again. The opportunities to do so will be present given the Gamecocks’ still-underwhelming personnel is exacerbated by a schematic deficiency borne from the loss of Bryson Allen-Williams.
The strength of the defense heading into the season was undoubtedly its linebacking corps with Allen-Williams at Sam and the long-awaited return of Skai Moore at Will. Throw in a pleasant surprise at Mike in TJ Brunson and it’s a solid unit capable of lifting both an improving line and a secondary which lacks depth.
But since Allen-Williams was lost for the season, the Gamecocks have been forced to play freshman Sherrod Greene at Sam and thus moved away from the 4-3. They now play predominantly 4-2-5 nickel, featuring Antoine Wilder or Jamyest Williams at the nickel/Sam position. Against run looks, Muschamp has moved safety Chris Lammons to nickel since he’s a better option against the run. None of these stopgaps are actual solutions for Muschamp (all less than 190 pounds), especially against a scary Clemson ground attack.
Despite fielding only a front 6 by personnel, run defense has been the relative strength of the unit thanks to Moore’s presence and an improved defensive line led by Dante Sawyer. It’s in the defensive backfield where Muschamp’s weaknesses are found this year versus all over the field a year ago.
South Carolina has played a lot of man coverage even without the corner and safety talent to make it work, but they’ve played only a handful of competent offenses and the results have thus been solid. Both to mitigate the lack of strength outside and to prevent deep shots without safety help, they don’t play press at the line often like Auburn and FSU. Man defense, especially when over-matched, is exactly the sort of defense Kelly Bryant and his receivers excel against because the reads and throws are easier; Bryant will have opportunities to make this a blowout with his arm.
Yet even if Bryant’s not sharp, you have to like Clemson’s chances on the ground against such undersized players in the defensive backfield being asked to provide run support. I’m eager to see Clemson attack the edges on sweeps and screens with run-action to keep Moore and Brunson occupied inside; Clemson’s poor perimeter blocking should look considerably better against South Carolina’s undersized secondary. Clemson’s offensive line has been brilliant at creating an initial lane inside before linebackers and safeties limit potential touchdowns to 4 and 5 yard gains (it’s why Clemson is so efficient despite being one of the least explosive offenses in the country).
South Carolina has the opposite problem; the line is the reason the run defense has taken such a leap forward, but if there’s a lane through it for Travis Etienne or Tavien Feaster, they’ll have a much easier time breaking tackles against undersized defensive backs attempting to fill. Furthermore, Clemson excels at outnumbering defensive fronts on the ground with zone read and power concepts — thereby increasing the likelihood of getting past the defensive line — and if runs get through the South Carolina line they have a much higher potential to be long gains with such explosive runners.
Success on the ground will force Muschamp to bring a safety down in run support if it isn’t his initial strategy, and from there Bryant doesn’t have to be particularly accurate in a RPO-based offense tailored to his strengths:
Looking at personnel, the Clemson offense vs the South Carolina defense is not as horrible a match-up as it was a year ago for the Gamecocks; they were simply overwhelmed at every position. This year they don’t face the same monsters in Deshaun Watson, Mike Williams, and Jordan Leggett, but the matchup is still bad schematically and unfortunately their strength (run defense) is countered by Clemson’s strength (power running).
Without Allen-Williams, South Carolina essentially has only 6 capable box defenders — which invites the run — but moving undersized DBs into the box still doesn’t adequately defend the run, plus exposes them to Deon Cain, Tee Higgins, and company. From there they will drown or tread water with Bryant’s accuracy or lack thereof.
If I’m Muschamp, I wonder how I’ll slow the Clemson run game with my undersized personnel; it seems impossible to do so without bringing a safety down. The only option I see is for him to force the issue by attacking the line of scrimmage and gamble he can keep Bryant inaccurate. I expect Muschamp to put Lammons at nickel like he did against UGA and to coach as aggressively as he possibly can, to try and overwhelm the Clemson ground game while preventing the sort of consistency on which Bryant and Clemson have lived all year.
Muschamp will drop his star linebacker into deep coverage; he will put his 170 pound nickel corner on the line of scrimmage; he will put a defensive end at Mike; he will try and harass Bryant on the mesh and force him to make the wrong reads and protections with disguised coverages and overload blitzes, respectively. And it very well could work for a time.
Aggression can be effective early, especially with a fired up crowd and an initial belief, but it’s not sustainable without solid play in the defensive backfield or help from your own offense. South Carolina has gotten neither this season, and a rational thinker can’t expect them to suddenly elevate their game to Clemson’s level even if the front 6 plays phenomenally against an outstanding Clemson offensive line. At some point, Clemson will execute properly even if it’s only for a drive or two. Considering the lopsided mismatch between the Clemson defense and the South Carolina offense, a few well-executed drives will be enough.
I don’t foresee a rational scenario in which South Carolina pulls the upset; their best chance is on turnovers, but Clemson doesn’t turn the ball over like they did in 2015 and 2016. The difference between an uncomfortable 10-14 point win and a blowout is Bryant’s accuracy against the man and single-high looks he will inevitably face. Clemson is more than capable of grinding out another boring victory on the ground; if he’s hitting the downfield passes it’s a blowout similar to Louisville in week 3. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle.