No. 1 Clemson, Gamecocks trending in opposite directions
It was only two years ago the Gamecocks and coach Steve Spurrier joyously celebrated a fifth straight win over the Tigers, a streak so odious to Clemson fans that more than a few wondered if coach Dabo Swinney was the man for the job.
Now, it's Swinney on top, leading the nation's No. 1 team into Saturday's last game with South Carolina (3-8) and into a likely College Football Playoff berth.
Spurrier? The only glimpse fans at Williams-Brice Stadium will get of him is on the 80-foot poster outside the arena.
Spurrier resigned in October, leaving a South Carolina team that won 11 games three straight seasons from 2011-13, but now has struggled to find its footing under interim coach Shawn Elliott.
The low point so far came Saturday, the Gamecocks falling to FCS opponent Citadel 23-22 - the first Southeastern Conference team to lose to a lower division foe since 2010.
''This is probably the lowest our team has been in the locker room,'' Gamecocks receiver Pharoh Cooper said.
There's a chance things could get worse with how Clemson (11-0, No. 1 CFP) is rolling.
The Tigers had a seventh straight game with 500 yards of offense, a program first. Quarterback Deshaun Watson has ascended up the Heisman Trophy contender rankings and put on another dazzling display in a 33-13 win over Wake Forest that wrapped up the Tigers' first-ever 8-0 Atlantic Coast Conference season.
Watson, who played with a torn ACL when Clemson snapped the five-game streak to South Carolina last fall, will not discount the Gamecocks' intensity and desire simply because of the Citadel loss.
''It's the same way as if they were 11-0 just like us,'' Watson said. ''It's a rivalry and we know they're going to give their all.''
That's difficult for some South Carolina supporters to accept.
The Gamecocks opened the Elliott era with a satisfying 19-10 home win over Vanderbilt, but have fallen short since in losing four straight. The team appeared to show improvement and fight as it closed the SEC season with losses by a combined 20 points to Texas A&M, Tennessee and Florida. Things fell apart in distressing fashion against the Citadel.
More disheartening for the Gamecocks and their fans was the miracle touchdown to Cooper, a 94-yard strike on fourth down with less than a minute left, that was overruled because of a false start penalty.
Many wearing garnet and black in the crowd - and perhaps on the sideline - might be ready to move on to Spurrier's permanent replacement.
Not Elliott, not yet.
''This is going to be a fun week,'' he said Sunday. ''It's going to give us a chance to get a lot of things off our minds.''
There's one thing on Clemson's mind - keep chalking up victories. A win over South Carolina would complete the Tigers' first undefeated regular-season since 1981. With Ohio State's loss, Clemson has the country's longest win streak at 14 games.
Clemson's high-powered offense is ranked 14th nationally and the South Carolina defense is 89th in the FBS, leading many to expect an epic blowout even more lopsided 2003's 63-17 Tigers win revered or reviled - depending on which side of the aisle you're on - in rivalry history.
For Swinney, it's about ending a three-game losing streak at Williams-Brice.
''We've had some great games with them, but we haven't done a good job,'' Swinney said. ''We are going to have to do a good job this week.''
The Tigers see the Gamecocks as a pit stop on the way to bigger things. They'll face North Carolina for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship on Dec. 5 and then, if successful, await their berth in the playoffs.
''I went in there and talked to the players and said, `We may not always be perfect, we make mistakes, but we win,''' Swinney said. ''To win 20 out of 21 and 14 in a row, it speaks volume for the type of guys we have, but also for the kind of culture that we have created.''
Associated Press writer Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report.