The No. 3 Clemson Tigers come off an idle week to finish out the regular season Saturday in Columbia, SC, as the Palmetto Bowl rivalry is renewed. Everything is on the line for the Tigers, who want to keep their perfect season and College Football Playoff spot alive while also extending their winning streak over the Gamecocks to six games.
To help us learn a bit more about South Carolina this year (in case you haven’t gleaned enough from hate-watching), we put aside our differences in connecting with Kody Timmers from Garnet and Black Attack for an amicable Q&A.
STS: South Carolina has stumbled to a 4-7 overall record, including losing four out of five after their shocking upset at Georgia on Oct. 12. What have been the main things that have gotten in the way of them riding that momentum to a better record?
GABA: It’s trite to say it, but injuries have definitely been a factor (as they always seem to be with Will Muschamp, which is another matter), and South Carolina is still not a team with a lot of functional depth. Fading in the fourth quarter has been a huge problem for the Gamecocks as the long season wears on—I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but they’ve been outscored by a frankly ridiculous amount in that period. I’m sure this won’t shock you, but the offense in particular has been feast or famine, and while I think Bryan McClendon is a great guy and solid recruiter, I’m just not sure it was a good idea to roll with a first-time offensive coordinator learning on the job in the SEC. USC’s been trying to commit to tempo and that sometimes works, but lately it’s just been a bunch of lightning-quick three-and-outs that take virtually no time off the clock and put tremendous pressure on the defense. It’s hard to win with that formula.
STS: After quarterback Jake Bentley suffered a season-ending injury in the Gamecocks’ season-opening loss to UNC, well-regarded freshman Ryan Hilinski took over and seemed to have some flashes of brilliance amid some overall inconsistency. What’s your assessment of the job Hilinski has done this year, as well as what you realistically expect to see from him moving forward?
GABA: I think Hilinski has done as good of a job as could be reasonably expected. While he was a coveted recruit, he wasn’t viewed as the type of freshman who could come in and start right away, so he was still expected to redshirt behind Bentley this year. In light of that, I think he’s got a successful career ahead of him—as you said, he’s shown flashes of brilliance, including against teams like Alabama. He’s made some youthful mistakes, as all first-year players do, but the talent and potential is clearly there. When it comes to his future, I’m honestly more worried about the coaching he’ll receive. Maybe Bentley’s regression was always in the cards, but then again, maybe there was more going on behind the scenes that hampered his development. I’m wary of that.
STS: Most Clemson fans were bummed to see running back Tavien Feaster transfer to South Carolina this past offseason, but understood where he was coming from in his desire to be “the guy” and hopefully improve his NFL prospects. However, despite having some great moments, it does not appear he has truly separated himself, as he only has 13 more carries on the season than Rico Dowdle. What’s the deal there?
GABA: I think this is a two-part answer: One, Muschamp seems to prefer a platoon approach with his running backs, and two, Dowdle absolutely blew up when Feaster came to town. There was talk in the preseason that Feaster’s presence was motivating him in a major way, but it sounded like typical camp chatter and so I ignored it. But this has easily been Dowdle’s best season since his freshman year; he’s been running like a man possessed, and for the first time in a couple seasons, we’ve seen some reliability emerge at the position. Aside from adding stability and competitive juice to the backfield, Feaster has done a good job on his own as well, so while he may not be “the guy” specifically, USC fans are very happy with him. It’s hard to describe just how moribund this running game was before he got here, but Feaster and Dowdle have been an enjoyable and effective one-two punch.
STS: On a more macro level, what are your thoughts on the job head coach Will Muschamp has done to this point? He recently got a public vote of confidence from the school president, but things can always change quickly. How high of a ceiling do you see for this team with Muschamp at the helm?
GABA: I absolutely think it’s time for the Muschamp experiment to come to a close, but don’t see him getting the axe until at least 2020—partially because of his buyout, partially because of the injuries (although again, this is a trend that plagued him at Florida as well), and partially because of how brutal the schedule was this year. I think he’s a 6-8 win kind of coach at best, but even that “ceiling” is likely not reachable on a consistent basis without a decent hire at OC. It still absolutely blows my mind that he brought Kurt Roper with him from Florida—claiming that Roper didn’t “get a chance” before the staff was out the door—and then decided to promote a first-time OC as his replacement rather than going after an established name. Muschamp’s career, not just at South Carolina but also as a head coach, is literally riding on his ability to put together a competent offense. If he’s going to stay here, even for one more prove-it year, staffing changes absolutely have to be made—both at OC and also within the strength and conditioning program. We shall see.
STS: Now looking ahead to Saturday’s resumption of the rivalry: When the Gamecocks have the ball, which individual and/or position group matchups against Clemson’s defense give you the most concern? And which, if any, do you think they can exploit? Do you think we’ll see some similarly weird formations and trickery like we did in last year’s high-scoring affair?
GABA: I certainly hope some creativity will be on display. I’ll point to this year’s Alabama game as a great example, where the staff clearly committed to throwing everything and the kitchen sink at the Tide. It didn’t always work, but there were some successful uses of trickeration that helped the Gamecocks hang around longer than most expected. What’s strange (and frustrating) is that the staff hasn’t really gone back to that well in other games this season; a fake punt against Appalachian State comes to mind, but the offense has largely been pretty vanilla. If USC wants any hope of springing an upset of this magnitude, playing Clemson straight up is not an effective strategy, so we’ll see what this game plan looks like.
STS: On the other side, when Clemson has the ball this Saturday, which matchups give you the most concern? And which, if any, give you some optimism?
GABA: South Carolina’s defensive line, highlighted by Javon Kinlaw and D.J. Wonnum, has been as good as advertised this year. That’s about where my optimism starts and ends, unfortunately—Ernest Jones has been a standout at linebacker and Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu have had some great individual performances in the secondary, but this defense as a whole is so boom or bust. I’m probably most concerned about Travis Etienne, who has very quietly had an amazing year and could abuse a South Carolina run defense that’s been shaky, especially lately.
STS: While this game will be in Columbia, the Gamecocks face a tall order in trying to derail Clemson’s national championship aspirations and, more relevantly for them, prevent their losing streak to the Tigers from reaching six games. Clemson will be ~27-point favorites. What can the Cocks plausibly do to keep things interesting and at least give themselves a chance at pulling off a major upset?
GABA: As previously mentioned, creativity in the offensive game plan is an absolute must; while South Carolina didn’t beat Alabama, the Gamecocks acquitted themselves pretty well with a scrappy and inspired performance that at least allowed the fans to leave with some hope. While I think Muschamp is safe through 2020, a total embarrassment tomorrow could potentially reverse those fortunes, so it’s in this staff’s best interest to look like they’ve got a plan (particularly after coming off a bye week). I’ll definitely be disappointed if there isn’t any trickeration on special teams and the like. We’ve literally got nothing to lose.
We hope you enjoyed this Q&A. A big thanks goes out to our guest, Kody, for answering our questions. Also be sure to check out the other side of this Q&A (which should be up soon), where I answered some questions for Garnet and Black Attack.