Greetings to all the STS community! I hope everyone had a blessed and filling Thanksgiving on Thursday, as I certainly did, and are ready to turn full attention to the Palmetto Bowl. While we are on the theme of giving thanks, I would like to say I am actually thankful for some (not all) of the suffering we Clemson fans endured during that inscrutable streak during the first half of the decade.
Why you ask? Well, as a child of the 1980s, I found myself actually losing a bit of interest in the Palmetto Bowl as Clemson largely dominated the Gamecocks. I actually found myself sensing pity creeping into my system. Granted, the absence of the internet was a key to allowing this weakness, but it was there nonetheless. We all know how the feathered faithful can get when they think they are good, but the insufferable depths of their behavior from 2009-2013 made any sense of pity an impossibility for anyone who suffered through it.
Will Muschamp’s hiring was adding Mad Dog Hot Sauce to the nuclear wings at the local sports bar. There can never be enough redemption gained or humiliating blowouts delivered to quench my thirst. It doesn’t take strong intuition to know that Dabo Swinney and especially Brent Venables feel the same way.
Clemson defense vs. USCjr offense: The thought of Jake Bentley going pro after this season is probably laughable to most folks. A lot of Gamecock fans I know have developed feelings for Bentley similar to the ones many Tiger fans had for Nealon Greene in the 1990s. Now, I don’t recall the booing of Greene specifically during those rough stretches, but I know there was a hope for many Tiger fans like myself that someone better would beat him out and elevate the team (a guy like the erstwhile Billy Luckie comes to mind).
Greene was a solid but certainly not spectacular player who had the unenviable task of being QB1 during a time the Tigers simply could not beat an elite or even good football team. The problems then extended well beyond Greene, but nearly every ugly loss during that stretch featured an abysmal stat line from Greene. Jake Bentley is the Nealon Greene of South Carolina football, just with more hype and histrionics. He will put up some flashy numbers against the middling teams on the schedule and win some games, but ultimately he will fall flat when faced with a true opponent.
The biggest factor in the turn in this rivalry in 2014 was Clemson began dominating the lines of scrimmage. Clemson stopped allowing the Gamecocks to run the football and control time of possession, which (along with the boatload of Tiger turnovers in that stretch) were deciding factors in those wins for USCjr. I’ve said it before on here and I will say it again, any defeat suffered by the Tigers in these past four seasons (not involving Alabama) has required some heroic football from the opposing quarterback AND at least some kind of unforeseen running game. Alabama has been the only team good enough to win without needing an elite quarterback performance, and even they got the game best of Jake Coker’s career to pull out the 2015 national championship.
Facing Clemson, Bentley knows he has to carry the load, be better than his best self, and endure heavy physical punishment in order for the Gamecocks to really have a shot at the upset. He has crumbled under this pressure the last two seasons on the way to his two worst quarterback ratings of his career. Now he faces the best defense Clemson has had, at night, in Death Valley...
Alex Craft has already pointed this out, but I will echo that the Gamecocks must have their offense play at peak level to hang in this game. They have to figure out a way to do what no team has done outside of Texas A&M in the fourth quarter, which is string together multiple drives of explosive plays. Teams like Louisville and Duke who have (or had in Louisville’s case) two great schemers in the college football world were able to find something to get a field goal or two early in the game before being completely stoned from then on out prior to absolute garbage time.
The Tiger defense is so good that you almost need four playbooks of tricks that you can execute at a high level in order stay ahead of the adjustments. Problem is, no team can execute that much outside of what it already does, so it goes back to being able to win one on one against the Tigers. There might be two or three offenses in the nation who can hope to do that any more than once in a while and the Gamecocks don’t have one of them.
Venables sent the house at Bentley in 2016 from the get go, then he faked pressures for the most part last season which foiled the USCjr gameplan and led to the early pick six by Ryan Carter. I would expect Clemson to be a little on the conservative side in the early going of this one while Venables and staff feel out what the Gamecocks hope to do to move the ball. They do have capable wideouts in Samuel, Smith, and Edwards who can all hit for a big play, and their line is one of the better ones on the Tiger schedule, but this offense is very similar to the one NC State brought to town in that they struggle to run it when they need to run it and rely way too much on the passing game to win.
I would also rank Bentley well behind Ryan Finley as a quarterback in the cerebral department. Jake is more physically gifted and capable of better play, but certainly more likely to make a critical mistake. The Tigers will load up on Deebo Samuel the way Georgia did and not allow him to be a factor in the screen/reverse/slant game where he usually does his damage. Can Shi Smith and Bryan Edwards consistently win against Trayvon Mullen and the vastly improved Tiger safeties? The Gamecocks have to hope so.
The Gamecocks will have to figure out a way to run the football to at least 4 yards a carry, which no team has been able to do this year. They have to figure out a way to compensate for their defensive liabilities. I thought Duke played about as well as they could have hoped to in the first half last week and they were still losing at the half. If Clemson doesn’t make catastrophic mistakes with turnovers and egregious busts, you have to make a living making throws under pressure the way Jones was able to do here and there last week. If they can do that consistently, I will be the first to tip my hat.
Clemson offense vs. USCjr defense: The big reason Clemson and Alabama are easily the best two teams in the country at this point is neither team has to compensate for its offense or defense. Both teams can win a 17-13 slugfest and both can win a 50-42 shootout if called upon. Both teams can survive when one side of the ball isn’t hitting on all cylinders. The Gamecocks do not have a good defense. For all the “ACC is weak” stuff we hear from them, their team would be middle of the pack in the Atlantic and among the muddled mess in the middle of the Coastal. They could beat Duke, State, GT, Miami, UVA, etc., but it is as likely they would lose to those teams as well. That is where their team is, and they can expect the same treatment those teams have been getting from the Tigers.
The Tiger offense has sputtered in the first half of the last two games. Closer examination has shown that the team just missed on a handful of passes or runs which would have made those games blowouts much earlier. Eventually the team is just too good to miss on everything and puts up a ho-hum 27+ points. I’ve noted before how I think 27 is the magic number for an opponent to hit in order to hope to win against Clemson. No opposing team has done it, therefore the team is undefeated. The two close calls? Well, you know the math on those.
The Gamecock defense is bad against the run which is a tragic flaw which cannot be overcome facing the 2018 Clemson Tigers. Florida mounted its fourth quarter comeback not on the arm of Franks, but by pounding the run game at the Gamecock defense which wilted. Fewer things are more demoralizing or more telling than giving up a 17 point 2nd half lead by letting a mediocre offense run all over you.
You will see that I am calling for a big blowout in this one, and it is because I think Clemson’s quartet of backs will start breaking runs like they did against Wake and Louisville as the game goes on. It seems the latest approach to facing the Tigers is to try to show just a six or seven man box and send pressure late. One way I would hope Clemson would attack this strategy is by varying the tempo. Syracuse is pretty good at this approach where they go fast, fast, fast, then they slow it up and check what you are doing. Of course, Clemson really can just make up its mind to pound it no matter what, like it did against Syracuse in the second half, and dictate to the defense rather than react.
Playing single high means your corners have to hold up outside against the Tiger boundary WRs. Guessing wrong on your run pressure will likely lead to an explosive run. It is a haunting dilemma which can only really be solved by having dominant front four play which the Gamecocks simply cannot produce with any regularity. They will need T.J. Brunson to become Luke Keachly and make a ton of one on one tackles against Travis Etienne and the other Tiger backs. Brunson is a good player, but he isn’t Luke Keachly.
Special Teams: Perhaps the media should ask more questions about Spiers and the punting game because Will had his best game of the year last week. Of course, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in admiring the bomb Carson King unleashed on his one attempt, which was similar to his far superior punting in the spring game, and wondering how King hasn’t taken the job. That said, I will take the kind of game Spiers put forth last week going forward and hope it is a sign of improvement which will last. I will also say I will be upset if the team punts more than 3 times on Saturday night. Of course, the kick coverage will need to be on point as Deebo Samuel has proven to be an elite kick returner during his time at USCjr. B.T. Potter hasn’t been quite as automatic in getting touchbacks late in the season, so the Tiger coverage unit needs to be on point and not give up anything cheap.
Overall: Dabo gets along with most everyone, even his rivals in the business. We have seen how he had a good relationship with Steve Spurrier even when Spurrier was his biggest foil. There are two coaches in which I feel this type of goodwill doesn’t really exist: Dave Doeren and Will Muschamp. The staff usually has the long game always on the mind when playing overmatched teams, but little things which have been saved for a rainy day are very likely to be pulled out on Saturday night in the name of a Biblical slaughter.
Clemson 60-USCjr 10