Clemson's Tajh Boyd (10) hopes to finally beat Jadeveon Clowney and South Carolina. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
No player on Clemson’s current roster has ever beaten South Carolina. For the Tigers to land a BCS invite, that will have to change on Saturday. Both Clemson (10-1) and South Carolina (9-2) remain in the running for BCS at-large bids, and the winner of this game will be in a prime position to secure a spot.
The Gamecocks have won four consecutive games in the series for the first time since the 1950s, and South Carolina has never won five straight against the Tigers. The rivalry may take a backseat to the Iron Bowl this week -- both Steve Spurrier and Dabo Swinney were asked questions about Alabama and Auburn during their media availability -- but the showdown doesn’t mean any less to the coaches, players or the state of South Carolina.
Last year, a 27-17 loss to the Gamecocks likely kept the Tigers from earning a BCS bowl appearance, and although revenge is on the team’s mind, it’ll have to shelf that and focus on playing its best game come Saturday. That's not always easy when a coach like Spurrier is facilitating the trash-talking.
“Coach Spurrier is only mean to me when he ain’t around me,” Swinney said during his weekly press conference on Tuesday. Swinney added later: “He’s just a competitive guy. I’m a competitive guy. He’s got bragging rights. They kicked our tail the last several years. That’s just the way it is. I don’t take it personal. He doesn’t discriminate. He likes to say things from time to time. It’s just him having fun.”
Clemson’s lack of execution was a primary reason South Carolina emerged victorious in 2012. The Tigers’ defense allowed the Gamecocks to convert 11-of-21 third downs, and quarterback Tajh Boyd tossed two interceptions. Jadeveon Clowney also registered 4.5 sacks and disrupted just about everything Clemson's offense attempted. Clowney (foot) was out for last week's 70-10 rout of Coastal Carolina, but he is expected to be a full-go this Saturday.
The man responsible for shutting down Clowney is offensive tackle Brandon Thomas. The fifth-year senior came to campus with Boyd, and the two -- as well as the rest of the senior class -- know this is their last chance to knock off their in-state rival.
“All in all, it is just another game,” Thomas said. “But in reality, it’s a rivalry game. It’s another game, but it’s not another game. You have to look at it in a certain situation here. It’s South Carolina. Basically what you talk about is somebody having the advantage of all the talk 365 days of the year until you play the next time. It’s going to mean a lot.”
South Carolina has won 17 straight home games, the longest active streak in the nation, and quarterback Connor Shaw (1,983 passing yards, 47 rushing yards, 24 total touchdowns) has never lost when starting at Williams-Brice Stadium. With the odds against them, the Tigers will need Boyd to play one of his best games of the season. Otherwise, it’ll be another 365 days of talk -- and everyone knows the Head Ball Coach is good at that.
Although the intensity of Clemson and South Carolina's rivalry hasn’t changed one bit, the ACC has evolved a great deal of late. With Pittsburgh and Syracuse joining the fold this season and Louisville set to come in 2014 (not to mention the partial membership given to Notre Dame), the league will be substantially different for years to come. That's not necessarily a bad thing for Clemson, as it will try to navigate the balance of power (along with teams like Florida State) in the Atlantic Division.
“When we first got here it may have been a few teams up there in the Top 25 and maybe one of the top teams,” Thomas said. “But now you see Duke in the Top 25. There’s a lot of good teams in the ACC. You could start to see it a long time ago. We’ve progressed as a conference, and this is just the beginning right now.”
The next few years will be critical for a number of programs. Getting into a BCS bowl in the final season before the College Football Playoff could go a long way toward building the type of momentum the Tigers hope to sustain.
There has been plenty of talk about Clowney having a “down” year, or “mailing it in.” But that’s not fooling the coaches who have to scheme against him every week. Clowney draws double and triple teams constantly, and South Carolina has tried to evade that by moving him all over the field. That isn’t easy for a player regardless of his level of dominance.
Last year, Clowney had 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. Coming into this week's clash with Clemson, he has 32 tackles, 8.5 for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble in 2013.
“It’s not all about stats,” Swinney said. “That guy is impacting the game every snap he’s in the game. Trust me. Whether he’s sacking a guy, making a tackle or not, he’s impacting the game. He’s an elite football player. Big time. Everybody tries to have a plan for him.”
Boyd Meets World
For one reason or another -- most likely Clemson's prime-time 51-14 loss to Florida State on Oct. 19 -- Boyd (3,248 passing yards, 257 rushing yards, 37 total touchdowns) has fallen behind in the Heisman race. But he could get back into the mix with a big performance on Saturday. Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Baylor’s Bryce Petty and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota all struggled in losses last week, and Boyd still has a chance to land a trip to New York.
“We came in together and I knew from the start he was going to be a success here,” Thomas said. “His personality is great, and he’s a leader. Just watching him grow, I like seeing him succeed because he’s a good guy. When a quarterback succeeds, it reflects well on the offensive line. If he’s doing well, you’re doing well.”