The school that became the University of South Carolina was founded in 1801 in an attempt to promote harmony between the feuding upstate and low country. This went so well that decades later, in an act of political infighting partially designed to screw the low country and specifically designed to screw the University of South Carolina, Benjamin “Pitchfork” Tillman persuaded South Carolina to accept some land Thomas Green Clemson bequeathed the state for the purpose of establishing an agricultural college.
This land would go on to become the Clemson College in the 1890’s. The rivalry between the institutions began immediately, with Tillman (a founding trustee) using his influence as a senator and governor to support Clemson at the expense of U of SC.
What he saw as the inadequacy of the University of South Carolina at teaching agriculture was a core part of Tillman’s entrance into politics. He would threaten to close the university in Columbia while in office. The founding of Clemson knocked the University of South Carolina back to the College of South Carolina in 1890. In 1893 a proposal was offered at legislature suggesting closing the the campus to provide home for Confederate veterans.
One hundred thirty two miles separate the universities on the map. In reality, they are and have been divided by an ocean of shared animosity from their conception. Few schools trace their rivalry back to the universities charter.
A violent, cartoonishly racist man from a time full of them, Benjamin Tillman went to great pains to ensure Clemson would deny the states African-American population for the foreseeable future. Calling Benjamin Tillman a racist is not a judgment call; as a politician the man achieved national fame for his vitriolic and racist tirades. He became a politician after leading a paramilitary group of white supremacists against an African-Americans militia and that left seven of them dead in the Hamburg Massacre.
Acting in his roll as Governor, Tillman advocated for the use of convict laborers, largely African-Americans, to build Clemson College. Tillman never attended college himself, he dropped out of school to join the confederate army. He missed the war because of a brain tumor.
Clemson has been, since its founding, a school for people who consider Columbia, SC too urban. To illustrate how rural it is to those who have never been: an ESPN feature on Zion Williamson described Zion’s hometown of Spartanburg as rural. Spartanburg is an hour away from Clemson and the home of the nearest commercial airport. You get there then start driving.
The school had a football team within a decade of its founding, when Walter Riggs brought faded uniforms with him from Auburn and created one of the most idiosyncratic color schemes ever to grace a field. The students rallied around football instantly, in 1902 Clemson students took rifles out over perceived disrespect by University of South Carolina fans. There was another near riot in 1946 over counterfeit tickets, and a massive brawl in 2004 between players inspired by Malice in the Palace the night before. Early iterations of the football game were played at the state fair, on a Thursday, because life as an ACC team has always been like this.
Neither World War canceled this rivalry, which was played for one hundred and eleven consecutive years dating back to 1909. The assassination of the president, and federal pressure not to go on TV, delayed this game for a mere days. COVID-19 cancelled the game for the first time in living memory when the SEC announced it would not be playing out of conference games in 2020.
Like a lot of rivalries in this sport, it’s relatively one-sided and pretty much always has been. The Tigers lost the first matchup before winning four straight, one game by 51-0. The rivalry sits at 71-42-4 with Clemson in the lead. If the Tigers win this year they would match the longest winning streak (seven games, also by the Tigers) in the history of the rivalry. Clemson is favored by about a dozen points.
The phrase “throw the records out” in rivalry games is cliche, but there’s some truth to it in this series. Clemson has figured some things out this season but still looks shakier, more mortal and more vulnerable than they have in years. The Gamecocks are 5-1 at home in head coach Shane Beamers’ first year and this game is in Columbia.
The Gamecocks have shuffled between grad transfers, players injured in fall camp and GA’s at quarterback this year but still have one of their best chances in some time. They are chomping at the bit at a chance to upset their more successful in-state rival. It would make their year to ruin ours, well ruin ours further than we’ve ruined it ourselves.
The Tigers are on a four-game winning streak and just had their most complete game as a team yet in a 48-27 dismissal of Wake Forest last week. The Gamecocks have also rounded into shape as the season went on, with a recent demolition of Florida and a close win against Auburn on the resume.
Both teams have done it by leaning on their running games and defenses and hoping they can get enough from their passing attacks to make it work. If styles make fights, expect an ugly one for fans of high scoring games. The over/under is set at 43 points.
This is a college football rivalry in the truest sense of the term. It is bitter, ugly, about sports while not being about sports,and does not bring out the best in anyone. It is two coworkers meeting up to fist fight in a parking lot on their lunch break, and until last year it happened with metronomic regularity. I hope it never stops.
I have absolutely no idea who will win on Saturday. I am almost certain it is going to be ugly and embarrassing to one and perhaps both teams involved. I know it’s going to look strange to the rest of the country, much less rest of the world how much emotion rides on this. I know if Clemson loses it will anger me for an entire year despite that. I know rivalry games like this across the country are why people love college football the way they do, and I’m glad it’s back it’s year.