The best week of the year is at hand. What were once contentious or even dreadful Thanksgiving weeks when this rivalry had slightly more parity than today, are now relatively stress-free and quiet unless you have Gamecock family with their heads in the sand.
We find Clemson in yet another dream season; a nightmare reality for Gamecock fans. Yet we must remain mindful our own nightmare scenario — South Carolina ruining Clemson’s season — could become a reality. I’m here, as ever, to explore this nightmare’s likelihood based the opponent’s defensive film.
I want to begin with the suggestion any Midlands-area Clemson fan should make the trip to Williams-Brice this season. I spent middle and high school in the area and am in town more often than not for Thanksgiving visiting my parents, but wrote the place off in 2009 for all the reasons Clemson fans have long hated the warehouse district and industrial park which encompass the venue.
I gave it another shot in 2017 and was pleasantly surprised to find the stadium and immediate surroundings have come a long way since my previous visit thanks to the university buying and landscaping what they could. Whether improving the space made its patrons more respectful, or the expected blowout left Gamecock fans relatively apathetic, I never once felt unsafe that night. I don’t think for a moment any of you will stop to enjoy the scenery, but if you know a Gamecock tailgate you can visit in the fairgrounds or old farmer’s market — versus parking and “tailgating” around Shop Road or Bluff Road — you can have a good time.
Most importantly, this should be the friendliest environment we’ll find in Williams-Brice in years, if not ever. The noon kickoff, fan frustration with Will Muschamp/Ray Tanner/Bob Caslen, and their belief this will be a blowout have compounded one another and led Gamecock fans to sell tickets en masse. Prices have fallen to less than half the face value as of this writing. This is a great chance to not only see Clemson in person for cheap (for likely the final time this season), but the greatest opportunity for Clemson fans to truly overrun Williams-Brice stadium and dunk on their entire culture.
For the third time in five years, Clemson can wrap up a perfect regular season against the hated South Carolina Gamecocks. Indulge me if you heard this before every Palmetto Bowl since 2015, but never before has the gap seemed so wide as it is today. South Carolina seems stuck in neutral with Will Muschamp, but firing him and starting over after only four years would undoubtedly put the clunker in reverse.
You won’t find the typical rivalry hatred in this space — I only let my hate seep through for Jimbo Fisher or Dave Doeren — because I feel pity more than any other emotion for Muschamp. This isn’t the patronizing, derisive sort of “bless their hearts” pity many Clemson fans dump onto Muschamp and UofSC of late, but true empathy for some awful luck which overstates his shortcomings, which in turn amps up the criticism which is justifiable. That, and he’s a meme goldmine.
Will Muschamp is not a bad coach, and his defensive coordinator track record affirms this. His defenses have been up and down at South Carolina, but most of the downers have been due to ungodly injury count. Injury, for that matter, is one of the few constants in the Muschamp tenure, and this year the bug bit the offense after it decimated the 2018 defense.
Normally I use this space to highlight the opponent’s scheme or tendencies upon which Clemson can prey, but this is still a patented Muschamp aggressive man coverage defense bent on pressure outside affording pressure to come from up front, and man coverage schemes require little to no explanation; its success or failure depends more on personnel than understanding schemes.
South Carolina has a few bright spots here which point toward a solid defensive effort Saturday: DT Javon Kinlaw, corner Jaycee Horn, linebacker TJ Brunson, and end DJ Wonnum are all plus players whom I expect to flash. The secondary in general is quite lengthy, though thin, and generally big plays come through the air rather than on the ground against a stronger defensive line than we’ve seen in Columbia since the beginning of the decade.
Yet it’s the run defense which cost U of SC against Texas A&M, and the run defense which will keep Clemson from dropping 50 points or not. Clemson’s offensive efficiency and thus overall production hinges on the South Caroline defensive line disrupting enough to keep Travis Etienne below 6 yards per carry. Laugh all we like at this still-gaudy YPC rate, but this is one of the best defensive lines they’ve fielded in a few years, and this line is all that can save South Carolina from a historic blowout. One player in particular caught my eye and is the fulcrum for the Gamecocks’ chances to find the sort of optimism they found after Jake Bentley’s career performance last year: Kinlaw.
You may have heard media in these parts ask which (if any) Gamecock players would start if they were on Clemson’s roster. Clemson folk will again laugh at the question and (correctly) point out UofSC’s all time leading receiver, Bryan Edwards, was only offered to play safety at Clemson; back up QB and part time WR Dak Joyner’s Clemson offer hinged upon him playing anywhere but QB. Kinlaw is a specimen on the defensive line though, and would almost certainly start outright at Clemson (certainly earlier in the year with Tyler Davis being a freshman).
Kinlaw is rather unique for an interior lineman in that he stands 6’6” and seems pure muscle; truly an overgrown defensive end in terms of length and lean mass (relative to his position) who has the quickness to get through interior lineman, but the pure strength to hold up and disrupt the run. Muschamp aligns him everywhere from a 0 and 1 tech nose to most often a 3 tech gap-shooter hellbent on getting into the backfield, adept with both the size and strength to bullrush and overpower double teams:
And the lean, fast twitch quickness to penetrate gaps not only at his natural 3 tech, but even the supposed space-eating 1 tech alignment:
Kinlaw serves as a microcosm for the Gamecocks’ season, in a way. What was supposed to and truly should be Muschamp’s best team has been all over the map, mired by injury and inconsistency; Kinlaw himself wrecked UGA’s all-world offensive line but was barely a factor when Texas A&M ran at will the last time Kinlaw and U of SC took the field. Nonetheless, he is an outstanding talent and will impact Clemson’s interior line, particularly Center Sean Pollard and even more so his backup Cade Stewart.
If I’m Muschamp, I ask my most talented defender to attack Clemson there, in the middle, rather stick at 3 tech and take on John Simpson/Jackson Carman or Tremayne Anchrum/Gage Cervenka. Such length and lean quickness at 1 tech is unconventional, but Kinlaw is strong enough to disrupt from anywhere. His performance will determine the ultimate margin not only because is the best hope to disrupt Clemson, but because Muschamp could play aggressive outside without exposing his corners if Kinlaw is a factor up front.
Offensively, the Gamecocks could not be in a worse spot, which is why you should take Clemson against the spread as long as it doesn’t rise too close to 35. Ryan Hilinski has regressed without either Rico Dowdle or Tavien Feaster healthy at the same time in over a month, and what was once a promising run game has evaporated into merely pin and pull handoffs mixed between 50 Hilinski pass attempts or desperate Joyner wildcat carries. And now the worst case has been confirmed with the unit’s only alpha playmaker, Edwards, ruled out with a knee injury (even if he tries to play he will be hobbled).
Shi Smith was a mismatch a year ago because Clemson had to defend Deebo Samuel and Edwards outside; the experienced Bentley found where Clemson was weak (and Samuel still put up 200 yards himself). But without any other play-making threats, Clemson can attack Hilinski and Smith however they wish. A freshman QB asked to throw 50+ times against the most experienced and flexible secondary in the country spells disaster, and Clemson may finally pull the elusive shutout with which they’ve flirted all year. On the other side, Clemson needs to play clean and limit Kinlaw’s disruption; do so and this could surpass the 1989, 2003, and 2016 blowouts.
I have to hedge against a shutout though since South Carolina has the kicking game to convert points inside the 30, and could move the ball enough to reach double digits early off tricks/emotion or late against Clemson’s backups. Anything less than 40 on the board for the Clemson offense would be a disappointment, and less than 50 even mildly dissatisfying. A margin between 35 and 45 feels right here with Clemson playing above last year’s championship level and U of SC likely playing above themselves until Clemson adjusts. Not quite historic, but enough to leave no doubt.