The following story on the Clemson-Carolina rivalry appeared in the November issue of CUTigers The Magazine. You can order a year's subscription to our new monthly periodical by clicking here.
What is it that makes a rivalry game so special?
Is it the sheer dislike for the fans that seem to make your life miserable for the other 364 days of the year if you lose? Is it because the year usually ends with that one opponent that makes or breaks your season? Or is it because you just get tired of hearing about the other team's storied tradition, even though you know they aren't on equal footing with your team's football program?
The answer is yes- to all the above.
The Clemson-Carolina rivalry is one that extends all the way back to 1896, when the two teams met for the first time in a 12-6 Gamecock victory. It would be the first of 99 games played between the two schools from the Palmetto state, and as it stands now, the Tigers hold a decisive advantage with 59 wins compared to only 36 losses and 4 ties.
At 93 games, it's the fourth longest uninterrupted rivalry in NCAA Division I-A college football.
"This rivalry reminds me very much of the Auburn-Alabama game," said Tommy Bowden. "They are both in-state battles and there are no pro teams in either state. People talk about the game 365 days a year and it is extremely important to the fans, players, alumni, job security, and every thing else on down the line."
The first 57 games in the series were actually played in Columbia, and were referred to as "Big Thursday," and up until 1960, the game was always played during the South Carolina State Fair.
Since 1980, the Tigers hold an impressive 15-6-1 record against their neighbors from Columbia. That record includes a 6-4-1 clip in Death Valley and an astonishing 9-2 mark in Williams Brice Stadium.
Interestingly enough, the Tigers dominance doesn't end there. The rivalry has produced several streaks since 1980, all of which heavily favor Clemson. In fact, the Tigers have defeated the Gamecocks four times consecutively on three different occasions in the last 22 years.
The first 4-game winning streak came in the early 1980's, when the Tigers won every game played between the two schools from 1980 to 1983. The Tigers also claimed their only National Championship during that time span.
The next 4-game winning streak came from 1988-1991, during which the Danny Ford era ended and the Ken Hatfield era began. And the most recent one ended last season when Carolina beat the Tigers for the first time since 1996.
Furthermore, the Gamecocks also have not defeated the Tigers in consecutive years during the modern era.
The 1984 Gamecock victory in Clemson was followed by a 24-17 loss to the Tigers in 1985. The 1992, 1994, and 1996 Gamecock victories in Clemson were all followed up by losses to the Tigers the following year in Columbia.
The closest thing to a winning streak the Gamecocks can claim was the 1986 and 1987 years. In 1986, the Tigers and Gamecocks battled to a 21-21 tie in Clemson, followed by a 20-7 Gamecock victory in Columbia the following year.
Regardless of the overall records in this series, the games played between these two schools have always been exciting, but it has only been recently that the rivalry has begun to take on national significance.
In 1998, the Tigers and Gamecocks struggled to 3-8 and 1-10 seasons respectively, even though Clemson was able to pull out a 28-19 win. Following that season, both schools moved in different directions with their coaching staffs. Carolina hired Lou Holtz, famous for his ability to transform a losing program into a consistent winner, and the Tigers hired Tommy Bowden, famous for his high-octane offense and the Bowden family name.
Tommy turned around the fortunes of the Tigers by leading Clemson to a bowl game in each of his first three seasons. And even though Holtz would fail to win a game in his first 11 contests, he turned Carolina from the laughing stock of the nation into a team to be reckoned with in the SEC East.
However, it wouldn't be until late November of 2000, that both the Tigers and Gamecocks would enter their annual battle with high expectations. South Carolina needed a win to lock up a major bowl birth that year, and the Tigers needed a win to solidify a season that included an eight game winning streak.
With Clemson in control most of the game; the Gamecocks drove the length of the field trailing 13-7 late in the 4th quarter. Derek Watson took the handoff on the Clemson 1-yard line and fumbled the ball into the endzone with time running out. Thomas Hill, a reserve tight end who had no receptions that year, fell on the ball with just 59 seconds left to give the Gamecocks a 14-13 lead.
Just when it looked like victory had escaped the Tigers' grasp, Woody Dantzler and Rod Gardner hooked up for what would prove to be one of the most memorable receptions in Clemson football history.
Dantzler rolled out to his right and heaved a pass down the sideline as far as humanly possible. On the other end, Gardner leaped in the air and made a spectacular reception over Gamecock cornerback Andre Goodman. It put the Tigers in business at the Carolina 8-yard line with just 10 seconds left.
The reception, which has come to be known in these parts as, "The Catch," was controversial in nature because the Gamecock faithful claimed that Gardner pushed-off on Goodman to gain an unfair advantage. The referee, who was part of a Southeastern Conference crew, saw otherwise.
Freshman placekicker Aaron Hunt came in and drilled a 25-yard field goal straight through the uprights to give the Tigers an improbable 16-14 win.
"Once they scored, I knew I had to make a play and once I made the catch, I knew it was over," said former Tiger wide receiver Rod Gardner afterwards. "I knew there was no way Aaron would miss that kick."
It marked the second consecutive year that Gardner got the best of South Carolina.
The previous season saw the Jacksonville native bring in a 29-yard touchdown pass from Dantzler on 4th and long with the game on the line late in the 4th quarter. The Tigers ended up winning that one 31-21, which not only clinched a bowl birth, but it also pushed the Gamecock's losing streak to an unprecedented 21 games.
As loyal, devoted, and rabid as the Gamecock fans are, their assumption that USC and Clemson are equals on the gridiron is simply misplaced. The rivalry has been quite one sided in it's 100 year history, and very one sided since 1980.
Despite this, Tommy Bowden knows that he must never underestimate the most important game of the year in the eyes of Clemson fans. "Regardless of how the season is going, it is always the biggest game of the year because it's your in-state rival. Even if you have injuries, I think in that game, there's so much emotion in it, you just line up and play," said Bowden.
The Tigers have not only dominated the Gamecocks in wins and losses, but the advantages stretch from points scored, to coaching records, bowl games, and on down to winning streaks. There really is not one area that you could chalk up as a victory to the Gamecocks, unless you want to talk about optimism and fan support in the face of adversity.
Nevertheless, Carolina was able to eek out a 20-15 win last season, which prompted Lou Holtz to comment on the immense pressure placed on him by Gamecock supporters.
"I've been involved in a lot of rivalries, but I never felt as much pressure as I did from this one, not from anybody. I just felt we had to break out of it," said USC coach Lou Holtz after the Gamecocks ended a 4-game losing streak to Clemson.
Carolina used a bruising running game and a stingy defense to rally from an early 9-3 deficit to go on to the 5-point win at Williams-Brice Stadium. The Tigers gained almost 250 yards of total offense and 11 first downs in the first half but could only manage 104 yards and five first downs after halftime.
The Gamecocks used a 13-play 7-minute drive midway through the 3rd quarter combined with a 14-play 6-minute drive at the start of the 4th quarter to seal the win. The Tigers would add a touchdown and threaten late, but time simply ran out on quarterback Woody Dantzler and company.
"You really don't appreciate a victory in this rivalry until you lose it," said Tommy Bowden afterwards. "I have to go to about 25 IPTAY meetings this year, and the first thing they'll all want to talk about is why we lost this game."
This year, the heat turns back towards Clemson, as the Tigers try and keep the Gamecocks from winning on their home turf for the first time since 1996. The old rivals will strap it on again on November 23rd when the Gamecocks make the trip of I-26 up to Death Valley.
"There's no team we want to beat more than South Carolina," said linebacker John Leake. "It's such an intense game because both teams are in-state schools. I feel like we let the seniors down last year by not winning down there, and we sure don't want to let that happen again."
The importance of this rivalry game is magnified even more because of the heated recruiting war now taking place between the two schools. Most kids within the borders of the Palmetto state want to see which program has the edge before they commit to their school of choice.
With bowl bids, recruiting wars, and bragging rights on the line in one of the nation's oldest college football rivalries, nothing seems more important to the Tigers' season than a big Clemson win over the Gamecocks.
After a year of waiting for the rematch, Tiger fans can now count the days until Clemson football takes back the claim of South Carolina State Champions.
The previous story on the Clemson-Carolina rivalry appeared in the November issue of CUTigers The Magazine. You can order a year's subscription to our new monthly periodical by clicking here.
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