Rivalry takes national stage

It's what many fans have hoped to see for years - Clemson versus South Carolina for the opportunity to play for a National Championship.

And even though it isn't late November and there are no bowl berths or head coaching careers on the line, it has a special feeling to it, doesn't it?

Tonight at 9 PM in front of a national television audience on ESPN-2, No. 8 seed Clemson and No. 5 South Carolina will battle for the chance to play for a National Championship.

Despite an up-and-down season that saw the Tigers struggle against programs like Duke and Wake Forest, Clemson has been one of the hottest teams in the nation the last two weeks and enters tonight's game as the clear favorite.

Even though the Gamecocks are as deep as any team in the country when it comes to pitching, the fact remains they are coming off a 12-inning thriller in which the bullpen was somewhat depleted.

In addition, because the Tigers have won both of their games in Omaha and the Gamecocks have already lost one, South Carolina has to beat Clemson twice to advance to the National Championship series beginning Monday.

Advantage Tigers.

Still, given the scrappy nature of this South Carolina team, it would be no miracle for the Gamecocks to do just that. South Carolina is just as capable of winning the National Championship as the Tigers - which is what should make tonight's matchup even more compelling.

Simply put, it's rare these two programs have squared off with this much on the line.

Remember if Clemson wins tonight's game, its playing for the National Championship for the first time in school history.

If South Carolina wins its next two games, it plays for the national title for the fourth time in its history.

While it's an overused cliché, it couldn't be more spot on than now: it just doesn't get any bigger than this.

The fact is a game of this magnitude hasn't been played in this rivalry ... well, since the last time this happened in 2002.

Clemson head coach Jack Leggett (pictured above) and South Carolina's Ray Tanner are both looking for their first National Championship. (AP)
Clemson, then the No. 1 seed at the College World Series, won its first two games in Omaha just like it did this year, before having to face a South Carolina team that was trying to fight its way out of the loser's bracket. The Gamecocks would have to win consecutive games over the Tigers to advance to the National Championship game.

And that they did.

Taking down one of the most talented teams in the history of Clemson University, regardless of sport, the Gamecocks outscored the Tigers 22-6 to advance to play Texas for the national title.

It was a big deal in the Palmetto state eight years ago and honestly, it feels even bigger now.

Clemson holds a commanding lead in the overall series between these two teams (167-121-2), but the events that transpired in 2002 to a program that featured sluggers like Michael Johnson, Jeff Baker and Khalil Greene are still hard to swallow for the orange and white faithful.

It feels bigger now because the rivalry seems to be as nasty as it ever has been - even in baseball. Perhaps it was those two Gamecock victories eight years ago that helped amplify the overall hatred on the diamond.

It's also bigger because two of the top coaches in college baseball today - South Carolina's Ray Tanner and Clemson's Jack Leggett- have done just about everything they could at their respective programs except win a National Championship.

It's bigger because college baseball has somehow managed to grab the spotlight more now than it did eight years ago, especially in this part of the country.

It's no longer viewed as an afterthought to football and basketball. How could it given the successful nature of both programs?

It may be what some fans have wanted for years in football, but this is the second time in the last eight years it's happened in baseball.

It's Clemson versus South Carolina for the chance to play for a National Championship.

Until it happens in late November - it doesn't get any bigger than this.

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