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Clowney's long-awaited decision ends waiting for Tigers, Gamecocks

On Monday at 10:15 a.m. EST -- 12 days removed from Signing Day -- the nation's No. 1 recruit, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, will announce his college choice live on SportsCenter. The Rock Hill, S.C., native decided to wait until Valentine's Day -- which happens to be his birthday -- to tell either South Carolina or Clemson to "be mine."

Some may find it odd that ESPN would devote national air time to an 18-year-old's college decision. Clearly they don't follow college football closely enough. This is the No. 1 recruit in the country we're talking about, for crying out loud. It's a wonder CBS, NBC and ABC aren't interrupting their regularly scheduled programming.

Clowney is a 6-foot-5, 255-pound pass-rushing machine. Watch his highlight reel and you'll bust out laughing as he repeatedly blows by hapless high school tackles and tosses the quarterback to the ground like a used towel. A person whose football knowledge I greatly respect traveled to Rock Hill last year to see Clowney in the flesh and called him "the most impressive high-school player I've ever seen." Obviously, you never know whether they'll actually pan out in college, but the last South Carolina pass-rusher to garner such acclaim was Da'Quan Bowers in 2008. He turned out all right.

What makes Monday's spectacle unique isn't the platform (in 2002, running back Lorenzo Booker announced his pledge to Florida State live on a prime time SportsCenter) or the timing (in '08, Terrelle Pryor waited until mid-March to announce for Ohio State). Rather, it's the schools involved.

This isn't a battle between Alabama and Auburn or Ohio State and Michigan -- it's South Carolina and Clemson, two programs with large stadiums and passionate fan bases but not a single BCS bowl appearance between them. In fact, neither has won a conference championship since before Clowney was born. Not that they have to stay that way.

Quite frankly, it's puzzling that neither program has made a national breakthrough in recent years. Even in winning their first SEC division title last season, the Gamecocks still managed to finish with five losses. Dabo Swinney's Tigers played for the ACC title in 2009 but, sans C.J. Spiller, slipped to 6-7 last year.

Whichever way he goes (most expect it will be South Carolina), Clowney's decision to stay in-state marks a landmark for the rivalry.

"This entire state is buzzing about the decision," said 247Sports.com National Analyst J.C. Shurburtt, who resides in Columbia, S.C. "South Carolina is like Alabama in that there's no pro team and everyone's a fan of either South Carolina or Clemson. So the fact that the No. 1 player in the country --- who's been the cover of ESPN the Magazine -- is from this state, you have a lot of factors that make this an interesting decision."

South Carolina is a relatively fertile recruiting state. Obviously, it doesn't come close to California, Florida, Texas or even neighbor Georgia, but from 2004-09 it produced the 13th-most BCS-conference signees (217), just behind Louisiana and just ahead of Mississippi.

The problem for years, however, was that the elite recruits like Clowney generally chose to leave the Palmetto State. Among them: Stephen Davis (Auburn), Bobby Engram and Courtney Brown (Penn State), Shaun Ellis and Albert Haynesworth (Tennessee), Greg Jones and Alex Barron (Florida State), Carlos Dunlap (Florida) and, most recently, A.J. Green (Georgia) and Robert Quinn (North Carolina).

That trend has changed over the past few years, however. Clowney's choice will mark the fourth straight year the state's consensus top recruit (and five-star national recruit) elected to stay in-state. He'll follow in the footsteps of Bowers (Clemson), cornerback Stephon Gilmore (South Carolina) and running back Marcus Lattimore (South Carolina).

It's no coincidence the Gamecocks' SEC breakthrough last season took place with three young in-state products -- Lattimore, Gilmore and receiver Alshon Jeffery (a Top 100 player from the class of 2009) -- achieving first team all-conference honors. With all returning, Spurrier's team is likely to start next season in the Top 10 for the first time. Like them, Clowney could potentially become another impact freshman that helps it move up the national hierarchy.

South Carolina's recruitment two years ago of Gilmore and starting linebacker Devonte Holloman -- teammates at South Pointe High School in Rock Hill -- helped it get an in with Clowney, who was a sophomore there that season. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who recruited the pair, was among the first to recognize Clowney's potential and begin pursuing him. Hence, despite flirtations with North Carolina and Alabama, South Carolina has been considered his leading contender for more than two years.

"His friends are down there. He has familiarity and comfort with the staff and the program," said Shurburtt. "I'd be very surprised if he doesn't pick South Carolina."

Historically, Clemson is the better program. It won a national championship in 1981. It's produced a slew of NFL standouts (Dwight Clark, William "Refrigerator" Perry, Chester McGlockton, Levon Kirkland, Brian Dawkins, Trevor Pryce, Spiller and the late Gaines Adams, among others). In terms of facilities, resources and fan support, it is essentially an SEC program that plays in the ACC. And yet, in somewhat mystifying fashion, it has not produced a 10-win season in 20 years.

For most of Clowney's recruitment, Clemson was not even deemed a contender. However, the staff has made a strong late push, thanks in part to its success landing some other elite recruits. On Signing Day, it landed the nation's top two linebackers (according to 247Sports.com), Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward, to finish just outside the Top 10 classes. Clemson fans have suffered more than their share of crushed optimism, so perhaps they shouldn't put too much hope in Clowney, but if he's not seriously considering the Tigers, he's certainly teasing them

"Clemson had a good recruiting class. If I go, they would have an even better one," Clowney told TheNew York Times. "They had all the top linebackers, and I was thinking I could join them."

One thing's for certain: Whichever school he does choose will gain a whole lot of new viewers this coming season. By purposefully delaying his announcement (he admitted last week he already knows his decision) and creating his own mini-Signing Day, Clowney has pushed himself into the stratosphere of other recent recruits -- Pryor, Jimmy Clausen, Seantrel Henderson -- that garnered so much hype, even fans of other teams will want to see the kid for themselves. As a result, if he fails to make an immediate impact, he's sure to suffer an accompanying backlash.

So enjoy the birthday spectacular, Jadeveon. And you too, Palmetto State football fans. The rest of us will be eager to find out if the victor finally becomes a factor in the rankings that really matter.

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