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This Palmetto Bowl is Personal

And this is Will Muschamp’s worst defense!

NCAA Football: Clemson at South Carolina
Nov 25, 2017; Columbia, SC, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp congratulates Clemson Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney following the Clemson Tigers win at Williams-Brice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

This is personal. One could say rivalry games are always personal for us fans, who are far more confrontational and antagonistic to one another than any players or coaches; almost all of whom consider each other fraternal and are generally perfectly friendly outside of this week. But this edition of Clemson vs South Carolina finds the animosity carrying over from the workplace, neighborhood, pews, and online into the locker room.

Clemson is angry. They’re angry about the scene in Columbia last year with the thrown projectiles and “F you Dabo” chants from more than just the South Carolina student section. Clemson is angry about the loaded questions and incessant chatter from Columbia media questioning the character of their coaches and teammates. Compounding this is a chance to finally match, and in a sense, undo the Gamecocks’ unfathomable streak from 2009-2013; the streak which led to “five-bombing.”

Clemson is ANGRY. Not the overhyped, undisciplined, personal foul-inducing recklessness which derailed the Gamecocks’ chances early in both 2016 and 2017, but the calm, poised, mature purpose which precedes their most dominant performances. Clemson is borderline smug in their quiet fury, in their their bemused anticipation to give Dabo Swinney the proper kind of five bomb. It’s almost scary:

Coach Venables’ face says it all. This is personal. More personal than any meeting since 2014, when Clemson finally put a stop to the unspeakable streak. Now faced with a chance to match it, when the already-resigned Gamecock collective have moved from earnest smack talk to peddling conspiracy theories, Clemson is poised to deliver another beatdown. And it couldn’t be more deserved.

Welcome to 2018, where the strength of a Will Muschamp team is its passing game and its defense was bad even before injuries decimated the unit. How on earth did this happen? Well, it’s 2018, where what was once unthinkable is now normal. That, and Muschamp fired Kurt Roper, the offensive coordinator who would’ve, ummm, “kept him employed at Florida” if Muschamp had hired Roper earlier.

South Carolina quite literally limps into the Palmetto Bowl 6-4, winners of only one game against a team with a winning record (unless you count 6-5 FCS school UT-Chattanooga)...7-4 Missouri. It’s difficult to say a Gamecock team 2 games over .500 is disappointing, but given last year’s surprise 9-4 campaign and this year’s improved offense, failing to match last year’s record would be a step back in Muschamp’s third season.

Quarterback Jake Bentley has long been South Carolina fans’ scapegoat, but he has played very well of late and has finally begun to vindicate much of the perpetual hype surrounding his potential. Still far too mercurial, he can often be counted on to fall apart after big plays simply from overexcitement, and when he’s down, cannot bring himself back up. This wasn’t the case though in a shootout win against Ole Miss or in a close loss to Florida where he was largely superb; no, the real culprit in the Gamecocks’ issues this year is the lack of a pass rush and a talent depletion in the secondary, which has only been magnified by an ungodly string of injuries.

South Carolina will most often align in a 4-3 Under (meaning the line shifts to the weak side, with a strong side linebacker on the line of scrimmage presenting a 5-man front) and a man coverage shell, heavily shaded towards the offensive personnel:

Muschamp is fond of man coverages and aggressive single-high safety looks, and even with overmatched talent he will call these aggressive looks throughout the night. As much as I prefer to dive into these schematics and coverage shells, it’s the personnel which will tell the tale in this contest, and it’s a rather bleak outlook for South Carolina.

Beginning up front, the Gamecocks are undersized and undermanned on the defensive line. They lack the size to hold up against the run and lack the depth to provide a consistent pass rush. Defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw is the biggest at 305 pounds, which is smaller than it seems due to his relatively lean 6’6” frame. However, lean in Kinlaw’s case isn’t a slight; he might have more upside than any other player on the roster.

Edge rusher DJ Wonnum is the Gamecocks’ primary pass rush threat, but has battled injury himself, which limits the fronts Muschamp wants to employ. It’s Wonnum who Muschamp needs in order to present the exotic looks up front, and without injured linebacker/rush end Bryson Allen-Williams, Wonnum is even more crucial to any hopes for the pass rush, which lately has been non-existent:

The best player on this Gamecock defense is found in middle linebacker TJ Brunson. Before Allen-Williams’ was lost for the season, the Gamecocks were very strong at linebacker with he and Brunson providing a solid pair to hone in on the run and provide pressure on blitzes.

With limited personnel up front and almost no personnel on the back end, it’s now simply Brunson trying to hold it all together. As it stands today, Brunson is the only player on this defense who would compete for a starting role on Clemson’s defense, but then again Clemson’s starting middle linebacker is Butkus Award finalist Tre Lamar. Muschamp loves to send Brunson off the edge to compensate the rush, and it’s a risk which has yielded dividends whenever he’s moved out of the middle:

Against Clemson’s base 11 personnel, the Gamecocks will play a 4-3 hybrid, with starting safety Jaycee Horn (a true freshman returning from injury) lining up at Sam/nickel. It’s a look better suited to defend the pass, and it exacerbates the problems in run defense. It may prove impractical if safety Steven Montac is not healthy; as of this writing he is expected to play but not listed a starter. If Montac can play, this will be a common look:

Not pictured: boundary corner vs boundary receiver

It’s a look and front which should provide plenty of room for Clemson on the ground, particularly given the Gamecocks’ lack of experience and size throughout the unit. None of the defensive linemen require double teams save Kinlaw, and inside zones which allow the interior offensive line to climb to Brunson could prove more productive than we’re used to seeing early from Clemson’s scripted opening drives. More importantly, without any thumpers in the Gamecock secondary to set the edge or fly the alley, power and counter runs to the edge should be particularly effective:

The Gamecocks’ problems begin up front, but where they’re particularly bad is in the secondary. It’s what you’d expect given the rash of injuries forcing unready players into action, but they’re worse in run defense than against the pass. Runs which reach the second level usually involve quite a bit of YAC, and Travis Etienne has to look at this film with indecent anticipation.

Only senior cornerback Rashad Fenton has the experience and confidence to hold up, yet he faces the unenviable task of corralling Clemson’s 5-star boundary receivers, Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. Clemson loves to attack intermediate with Higgins before subbing and sending Ross deep on consecutive plays, and it’s a combo which has proven deadly with the pair combining for 1,200 yards and 13 touchdowns split almost evenly.

The man coverages and heavy shading may serve Muschamp well when he has comparable talent, but the inexperience compounding the already glaring talent gap spells disaster against a Clemson offense which is actually balanced when it remembers to give the criminally underutilized Etienne the ball more than his usual 12 carries per game; on a yards per play basis, at least, it’s the most successful Clemson offense of all time.

Aware of this deficiency, we may find more conservative zones behind frequent blitzes from Muschamp early and often Saturday night; the overarching defensive gameplan against Lawrence hasn’t changed despite his stellar play over the past two months: load up against Etienne and try to pressure the freshman quarterback into mistakes. Aside from checking out of run calls too often, Lawrence has yet to make them.

Considering the conundrum Muschamp faces against the Clemson offense and the sure-fire one-dimensionality against Clemson’s defense, it’s unrealistic to expect a close contest without a sloppy Clemson performance plus the Gamecocks’ best possible performance (not simply one, but both have to happen). Those who point to unpredictability or emotion providing an equalizer in rivalry games are not familiar with this one, where upsets have been almost non-existent historically and emotion has gotten the better of South Carolina lately.

South Carolina has certainly improved since the last time they visited Death Valley en route to a 50 point loss, but the gap has widened again compared to 2017’s 24 point margin; Clemson is far better on offense than a year ago and has perhaps its best-ever defense, while South Carolina has regressed overall due to mounting injuries, despite an uncharacteristically strong Muschamp offense.

This may not get out of hand as quickly as 2016, but I expect the final margin will approach the same figure. This is a complete Clemson team which matches up very well against a reeling South Carolina defense, and will feast on an offense which already can’t run the ball effectively. Bentley must raise his recent stellar play to an even higher level to keep this respectable.

If 2016’s senior curtain call ruffled the feathers, I can’t imagine what they’ll say after a Christian Wilkins touchdown pass. Meet me in the stratosphere. This is personal.

Clemson 48, South Carolina 13