Rivalry hits next level

Back in 1998, I was working at the Anderson Independent-Mail as the high school writer and helped cover the Clemson-South Carolina game that season for the newspaper.

It was tense around the campus as Tommy West's job status was a big story leading up to the game. And then he found out late in the week that he would be dismissed as the Tigers' head coach (Brad Scott was later fired as the Gamecocks' head coach, too).

The night that the West announcement came out, I was assigned a story about the assistant coaches as they looked ahead to what would be next for them. Reggie Herring apparently didn't like my line of questions and let me have it after one that he particularly didn't appreciate.

To say it was intense that week would be a huge understatement, and it's amazing how far the rivalry has come since that year. The intensity between the two teams and fan bases certainly is there but now for a totally different reason. The 1998 matchup featured 2-8 Clemson against 1-9 South Carolina, and inexplicably it was televised by one of the ESPN networks. West's team pulled out a 28-19 win, and he was carried off the field by the players, and the two programs headed in new directions after that game.

Those new paths have led us to this week: the biggest Clemson-South Carolina game in the rivalry's history.

Saturday's game marks just the second time in the series history that both teams will be ranked in the top 15 and just the sixth time that both enter the game ranked in the top 25 in at least one poll. The only other time they were both in the top 15 came in 1987 in Columbia, and South Carolina won that game 20-7 with an impressive performance at a raucous Williams-Brice Stadium.

It was an important game, for sure, but this week's is much, much bigger because it will take place on the national stage like never before. The winner of Saturday's game should be headed to a BCS game, and that drama will be played out on national TV on ESPN. That's a big step forward for both teams as they are both having terrific seasons, and they get to showcase what the state has to offer on a national stage.

This series typically doesn't get the attention that is reserved for Alabama-Auburn or even Florida-Florida State and for good reason. Those rivalries have been played for years with big-time stakes, and not just state bragging rights, on the line.

This week, Clemson-South Carolina steps into that realm really for the first time. While the game's loser will have had a solid season and will go to a good bowl game, the winner will end up having a special season.

It already has been a terrific season in the state with both teams having strong showings. Clemson is 10-1, with its only loss coming to Florida State, and the Tigers ride a seven-game winning streak into the rivalry game. South Carolina is 9-2, and its only losses have come on the road to LSU and Florida, both currently ranked in the top 10 in the BCS.

The 19 combined wins are the most for the Tigers and Gamecocks entering the game (after they combined for 18 entering last year's game), and that back-to-back success shows huge improvement for the programs and the series. The previous high for combined wins before last year was 16, and that happened four times in the 1980s.

But back then, the Tigers dominated the series, while that has changed in recent years. And while this week's game is big for both teams, the recent struggles in the series make Saturday even more important for the Tigers.

South Carolina has won three straight in the series, and the games really haven't been close, with the Gamecocks winning by a combined score of 97-37 in three impressive performances. The Gamecocks haven't won four straight since 1951-54, and it would be a huge accomplishment for them to match that Saturday.

Clemson has long controlled this series, but that has changed with Steve Spurrier's arrival in Columbia, and the rivalry has a new feel to it. That makes Saturday's game especially important for the Tigers because they need to get a win to slow down the Gamecocks a little bit in the series.

Just ask Georgia fans. The Bulldogs owned the Gators for years before Spurrier took over the Florida program, and he totally changed the tone of the series and put the Gators on top.

Clemson doesn't want that to happen with this series. Sure, winning 10 games and claiming ACC titles are nice, but the rivalry game at the end of the year still carries a ton of weight with the fan base, and the Tigers can't let control of that rivalry slip away.

That's what makes Saturday so intriguing. The rivalry is intense when both teams are struggling, but it's especially emotion-stirring when both are having strong seasons.

Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter @DM_Shirley

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