Rivalry week is upon us and the hate is flowing. While the feathered faithful out there seem to think the only game Clemson has played all year was at Syracuse and the only streak in the series was their five game win streak which only the current redshirt seniors were around for, it actually is an opportunity for 11 wins and another four game win streak in the series for Clemson.
Yes the Tigers just keep on winning at a rate the Gamecocks could only muster twice in their entire history. Clemson will play for yet another conference title vs the one measley 1969 title for USCjr when they were a stellar 6-4. There was a stage in my life in the 1980s when I simply pitied the Gamecocks and felt more emotion towards the UGA Bulldogs, but there is no pity in my heart for the poultry now.
Just like last year, I’ve seen the crowing about Jake Bentley and those mighty 8 wins coming into this game. I congratulate the Cocks for handling a schedule featuring four programs who have or will have fired their coaches by season’s end. That has to be close to a record! They have backed into the top 25 just in time to be reminded of their true place in the world.
Clemson offense vs USCjr defense: Alex Craft once again did a great job breaking down the Gamecock defense. They have been the strength of the team, mostly by limiting explosive plays and preying on the ineptitude of their opponents who have turned the ball over repeatedly against them. Their LB corps has been good, particularly Skai Moore and TJ Brunson, and it has been mostly enough to stave off embarrassing losses to Louisiana Tech and Tennessee and Florida.
Clemson has been much better protecting the football with only the FSU game really sticking out as a poor ball security game this year. The Cocks must generate turnovers at a +2 or +3 rate to begin to have hope of winning this game. It took a +6 margin at home with their best team ever to break a fourth quarter tie and notch their last win in this series. The tide on the lines of scrimmage turned in that 2013 game and Clemson has enjoyed a decided advantage there ever since. They have no choice but to load up as hard as they can against Bryant, Feaster, and Etienne and pray Bryant throws it like he did in Raleigh.
The Tigers wisely used the last game to work on the passing game. What should worry the opposition most is what now appears to be a fully weaponized Tee Higgins. Clemson has really missed having that ultimate 9 man who is open if only one guy is on him. Higgins clearly has the top shelf ball skills to go over a corner in tight coverage the way Mike Williams could. We all know how #7 laid waste to USCjr’s top corner King last year. Jr’s thin secondary will have to deal with #WRU’s rotation of playmakers while trying to offer run support as well.
The Clemson OL has been very good at limiting TFL’s and has vastly improved in pass protection as the year has gone on. It is hard for me to see Jr having much success getting Clemson behind the chains and allowing Muschamp to drop Moore and company into deep zones against Bryant the way he’s been able to do against most everyone this year. Clemson truly has only scratched the surface on what the offense can be this year as Bryant has gained experience as well as Etienne and Higgins, among others. Gamecocks should recall how young Artavis Scott and Wayne Gallman exploded on them late in their freshmen campaigns as they rounded into shape.
Clemson defense vs USCjr offense: There is a certain formula you must have to really expect to beat Clemson. You need a fearless QB behind a strong enough OL to achieve some kind of balance. While Bentley has the sufficient gunslinger mindset, he just doesn’t have the quality up front to expect a run game to help him stay on schedule. Clemson has rested Dexter Lawrence for two weeks and should be ready to have the Dex Star fully armed and operational in a way he hasn’t been for a while. Just put on the Auburn tape to see just what that means and the level the Tiger defense can hit when he is full go.
I expect a dose of the screen/wheel stuff Syracuse used as well as fades to Edwards and Ortre Smith on the outside in hopes of winning some 50/50 balls. Clemson will be without Tre Lamar and it will be interesting to see how Venables adjusts. Will Kendall Joseph slide inside to Mike or will JD Davis be called upon to man the middle? Thankfully the Tigers have played more linebackers this year than ever before in the Venables era and several guys have gotten good experience. My call would be to go nickel with Isiah Simmons or Carter, with O’Daniel at Mike and Joseph at WILL. Having Edmonds and Fields coming back allows for more flexibility in the back and thus aggression up front just in time for this game.
The Cocks have been a below average offensive team this year and aren’t nearly the unit Syracuse or NCST are. They compare favorably to Virginia Tech this year who similarly has some playmaking outside but struggle to run against any decent front seven. VT tried trickery on multiple occasions as I expect Jr. will knowing they can’t just line up and play with Clemson. Can they find the chunk plays without getting Bentley buried in the fashion Stidham and Blackman were? Bentley’s mindset can lead to some impressive throws but he also puts the ball in jeopardy more often. Any disadvantage in turnover margin will be a death bell ringing for the Cocks.
Special Teams: Jr. was really dangerous here when Deebo Samuel was healthy. He kept their heads above water early this year when things easily could have gone awry vs NCST and Mizzou. Both Clemson and Jr. have had issues with field goal kicking, and even though both Alex Spence and Parker White have improved, I don’t believe either fan base would want things coming down to a kick. Ray Ray McCloud has to give the Cocks pause in how they want to approach punting. I expect a steady diet of rugby style kicks to try to not give him a return opportunity. Clemson just needs to be steady here and not allow some craziness to offset the overall advantage it enjoys.
Overall: I get all the “throw the records out” stuff regarding Rivalry games. I get that Clemson lost to a middling Syracuse team. I also understand that one team has a much larger margin of error in this game than the other. Can the Gamecocks play out of their minds for four quarters? They certainly can’t expect the unfocused and listless effort on defense Clemson put forth in New York; they don’t have the tempo, scheme or playmakers to capitalize regardless. This is a night game with all kinds of stakes and USCjr has done just well enough to expect the Tigers’ full attention. Clemson really had a scattered effort in Columbia in 2015 when it knew a C+ game would win. This won’t be like that.
Clemson 38 USCjr 12