‘Tis the season to give thanks, and there is much to be thankful for in Tigertown. Personally, I’m very thankful that my father, the son of a Gamecock football letterman, broke ranks and went to Clemson, thus saving me from a lifetime primarily filled with disappointment and rival envy as a Gamecock fan. I’d like to think I would have come to my senses on my own as he did, but thankfully it never had to come to that. I’m also thankful to have grown up in the 1980s, which was a glorious time to be a kid. Clemson football was good, and my BMX bike got to take turns being The General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard, K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider, and Airwolf depending on the mood. Another great gem from the 1980s was the Dirty Harry spoof show Sledge Hammer! They had a lot of fun making this show and it was a blast to watch, but the producers thought they had little to no shot getting renewed for another season. This launched one of the greatest finales in the history of comedy, in my humble opinion. I bring this up because the comedy that has been coming out of Columbia with their new president Caslen’s bumbling attempts to deal with their Clemson problem reminds me of Sledge trying to fix a nuclear bomb situation.
I’m not sure who qualifies best to deliver the “trust me, I know what I’m doing” line between Caslen, Ray Tanner, or Will Muschamp, but the end results are the same no matter what. I give Todd Ellis an honorable mention vote as well. I think the only thing better than watching the U of SC lose is listening to Todd having to call them losing. In an apparent attempt to one up his infamous “cycling out” commentary prior to 2017’s game, ole Todd tried to pin the Gamecock student section’s affinity for throwing things at the Clemson team on the Tigers doing their customary victory walk during pregame. I guess things would just be so much better for our feathered friends if Clemson could just stop being so dang good all the time. Oh, and that wasteland scene at the end of the video clip? That’s going to be Columbia once the Tigers get done dealing justice on Saturday afternoon.
Clemson offense vs. U of SC defense: Alex Craft has touched on this already, but I will re-echo his sentiments that any hope of the Gamecocks keeping this one at or below the betting line rests on how they play defense. Lost in last year’s moral victory from Jake Bentley’s 500 yards passing was the fact that Clemson’s offense moved the ball and scored with laughable ease. While it is true that this year’s U of SC defense is in a little better shape and did manage to stop (checks notes) the awesome (checks notes again) UGA offense, most sensible Gamecock followers now realize that the Dawgs from Athens have surpassed 30 points just once since week 3 of the season. Dealing with Clemson is an entirely different proposition.
The Gamecocks rely as heavily on man coverage as just about any team the Tigers have faced this season. It has been a pretty quiet season for Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross, and Amari Rodgers in the grand scheme of things, mostly because Clemson has steamrolled everyone except UNC. Few teams have really tried to challenge the Clemson wideouts with true man coverage. Trevor Lawrence has been incredibly good since the first quarter at Louisville, and David Hale pointed this out.
Passer ratings since Oct. 1
1. Trevor Lawrence, 198.6
2. Tyler Huntley, 195.7
3. Joe Burrow, 192.5
4. Justin Fields, 186.7
5. Jalen Hurts, 181.6
6. Hendon Hooker, 181.1
10. Kedon Slovis, 167.3*
11. Jayden Daniels, 166.2*
14. Sam Howell, 157.2*
So, unless Javon Kinlaw can wreck the Clemson offense from the middle the way Ndamukong Suh did in the 2008 Gator Bowl, the chances Clemson doesn’t surpass 40 points are pretty low. The only offense the Gamecocks have faced with Clemson’s skill level was Alabama, who put up 571 yards and 47 points. Tennessee had the WR talent to punish that man coverage also.
Travis Etienne is another major problem for the Gamecocks. It is bad enough that Etienne is a historically good running back, but now that historically good running back just got snubbed by the Doak Walker voters. It would be very funny to see Dabo just say, “here is what Etienne with 30 carries looks like” because it probably would result in 300 yards or more rushing. The Gamecock run defense got beat up pretty badly by Texas A&M and largely was in bend but don’t break mode. I expect they will do their best to hold Clemson to field goal attempts as the field tightens up inside the 25, but Clemson’s ability to run the ball coupled with two guys capable of winning 50/50 fade balls outside really puts defenses in a bind.
Clemson has made some decent Muschamp defenses look ridiculous the last three seasons, averaging 611.7 yards and 48.7 points per game in that span. The dirty little secret, if you want to call it that, is that the SEC hasn’t featured a lot of dynamic offense outside of Alabama (and LSU this year). When Muschamp faced Drew Lock, freakish weather helped offset what might have occurred. What works against some of these supposedly tough SEC teams doesn’t work against Clemson. When Clemson doesn’t turn the ball over, it kills people, and it hasn’t been turning the ball over during this scorched earth run down the stretch.
Clemson defense vs. U of SC offense: It is kind of sad when your landmark offensive performances come in double digit losses. This year’s peak performance was the Alabama game loss when Ryan Hilinski had Gamecock fans believing he was the next savior of the program after the last failed savior of the program Jake Bentley. Since then, injuries and additional film have led to a more and more anemic offensive attack from the Gamecocks. They haven’t been able to replace Deebo Samuel’s explosive impact, and next best option Bryan Edwards is banged up and questionable for the game. Their win over UGA was predicated on one big offensive play to Edwards and then simply not imploding with turnovers so that UGA had to mount drives to score. Their run game has gotten worse and worse thanks to injuries and an ever increasing disrespect for their ability to hit explosive passes over the top. The Gamecocks have averaged 64.25 rushing yards per game in the last four games. Their only wins beyond the UGA game came against teams playing backup quarterbacks and Charleston Southern. They are averaging 24.18 points per game, which INCLUDES the 72 points they scored against CSU. Now they are facing a defense who hasn’t given up more than 20 points or 300 yards to anyone all season.
Dabo has begun to quit holding his cards in regards to how he feels about this team. Now we are hearing that this team is more dominant than even last year’s record setting national champion team. The media has nearly blown out their transmissions trying to shift into reverse on their narratives about Clemson. They know what is about to happen, and all the hopes that Clemson’s success is just a byproduct of a weak ACC are fading fast.
To beat this Clemson team, you better be able to run the ball at a high level. There really is no other way considering how elite Clemson is on the back end and just how multiple Brent Venables can be with his blitzes and coverages. Nobody has really tried to just drop back and pass to beat the Tigers except Texas A&M and maybe Syracuse, who was promptly sacked 10 times. Only two teams have surpassed 30 passing attempts against Clemson all year, A&M and FSU, who lost by a combined score of 69-24. Wake Forest, whose quarterback had thrown for over 2400 yards in 8 games before facing Clemson, attempted a TOTAL of 14 passes. It was like they just decided to not get him killed trying to throw the ball on Clemson. Sam Howell, a better QB than Hilinski, threw for 144 yards on Clemson, with 40 coming on one explosive play set up by a missed holding call. This Clemson defense has been ridiculously good and at this point can stake claim to the best Tiger defense of all time.
When you think about how bad of a mismatch this looks on paper, you almost shudder. Then you factor in that Brent Venables and crew were embarrassed by a pathetic performance on the back end in last year’s game and you shudder even more. The other “revenge” game for the defense was the Texas A&M game, where the Tigers completely dominated Kellen Mond until he finally broke 200 yards in garbage time late to somewhat salvage his stat line. If the Gamecocks had a bowl game to look forward to, you almost wonder if Muschamp wouldn’t just throw Dakereon Joyner to the wolves just to make sure Hilinski would survive for the bowl game. As it stands now, the Gamecocks can only really hope to run it way better than they have in the last month plus and hope to avoid obvious passing situations and turnovers. They also are facing the prospect of having maybe 40% of the stadium filled with Tiger fans, even worse than it was for the 2015 game.
Special Teams: One thing is probably for certain, the Gamecocks will dominate the punting statistic in this game. Will Spiers had a disaster moment against Wake to go along with his usual “meh” punts while Wake’s Dom Maggio blasted 9 punts for 57.7 per punt. Opposing punters are now nearing 50 yards a punt against Clemson this year as a whole, simply astonishing evidence of the Ray Guy curse. Hopefully Spiers’ fumbled snap fiasco was a one off deal because nobody seems to have more job security on the team than he does. He ultimately cost the defense its first shutout of the year.
Overall: There can never be enough blowouts to satisfy my thirst against the Gamecocks. Whatever shred of pity that might have existed was permanently erased by that 2009-2013 stretch and the subsequent behavior of their fanbase. I think back to the first time I saw the Tigers don the orange pants with the white jerseys in 1989 and the 45-0 beat down that occurred, and it fills my soul with warmth. I look forward to listening to the dejected voice of Todd Ellis calling out “touchdown Clemson” time and again as their fan base starts go fund me accounts to drum up Muschamp’s buyout.
Clemson: 52, U of SC: 0