The South Carolina and Clemson football teams will meet in Death Valley Saturday night to determine the best team in the state. For the past 51 weeks Gamecock fans have enjoyed having ‘scoreboard' over the Tigers with a 34-17 victory last season in Columbia. Clemson will be looking to regain control over the rivalry while the Gamecocks will be looking to beat the Tigers twice in a row for the first time in 40 years.
"(We're) playing for the state championship just like last year," South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier said. "It's always a huge game to play in-state rivals. They give a trophy for this game. It's one of our goals every year to beat those guys and I'm sure that's one of their goals too. It should be a heckuva game. "
Could Saturday's game be a case of Déjà vu?
The two teams enter Saturday's game in an almost eeirly situation as last season with roles reversed. Last season the Tigers brought in an 8-3 record and an Atlantic Division Championship. The Tigers brought in a dynamic duo at running back and receiver with C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford. Spiller was a 1,000 yard rusher and Ford was a deep-play threat every time he touched the ball. Quarterback Kyle Parker was a 2,000 yard passer.
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks had struggled offensively and were just 6-5 on the season, but boasted one of the nation's best defenses. For the first time all season the Gamecocks put it all together in the dominating victory over their in-state rival.
This season it's the Gamecocks that enter the game with an 8-3 record and SEC East Champions. The Gamecocks have a 1,000 yard rusher in freshman sensation Marcus Lattimore and receiver Alshon Jeffery is one of the best receivers in the nation and is capable of making a big play at any time. Quarterback Stephen Garcia has thrown for nearly 2,500 yards on the season.
The Tigers are the one that enter with a 6-5 record and an offense that has struggled mightily at times, but one of the nation's best defenses. For the first time this season, the Tigers will need to finally put it all together to knock off the Gamecocks.
"They had a season that could have been better," Spurrier said. "(They) lost some close games and are not quite where they hope to be. Anyway we all are where we are."
Many Clemson faithful refused to believe that the Gamecocks were the better team that sunny afternoon in Williams-Brice, claiming that the Tigers were looking forward to their ACC Championship game against Georgia Tech the following week in Tampa. Some Gamecock fans are wondering if their team will have the same approach this season with next week's showdown with Auburn for the SEC Championship in Atlanta looming large.
"This game is on the schedule at the beginning of the season every year," Spurrier said. "We're fortunate we have a bonus game (SEC Championship) at the end of the season, but it doesn't diminish anything about the game this week. Every coach and every team should always play the game that week... We are whatever we do against our in-state rival, and one school, team and fans will have a lot of bragging rights at the end of the year."
A never-ending topic of discussion for players and coaches have been achieving team goals. Beating Alabama, finishing undefeated at home, playing Florida with the SEC East Championship on the line, winning the SEC East are just some of the goals that have come and gone this season. Most have been achieved, a few have not. Beating Clemson is next on the list, as is winning nine games.
"That was another goal for our team to win nine games this year," Spurrier said. "Whether or not we can do it (we'll see). We'll keep trying and try to do it Saturday night."
If South Carolina hopes to turn the corner and take the program to the next level of consistently competing for SEC Championships and enter conversations of National Championships, one of the things they must do is beat their in-state rival on a more consistent basis.
"We've turned it a little bit," Spurrier said. "That's all. We've turned it a little bit in winning the east. The next two weeks will determine what we've done this year. Our players know that and our fans know it. We'll keep pushing this week and next week, then we'll have some time off before whatever bowl game we go to. We'll try to play our best these two weeks and then see where we are."
Only time will tell if Saturday's game will be a replay of last season's contest. If the Gamecocks play the way they've played the last two games, history will not repeat itself and the Gamecocks will leave Death Valley with a win.
Spurrier received a text message and letter from the last two coaches Gamecock fans would think following the 36-14 victory over Florida to clinch the SEC East. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney sent Spurrier a text message following the win to offer a congratulation, as did Georgia head coach Mark Richt. Unlike the two fan bases, Spurrier says he shares a pretty good relationship with the Clemson coach.
"I like Dabo," Spurrier said. "He's a good person and good coach and runs a good program down there. I mentioned last night I think we have a good, healthy rivalry with Clemson now."
Six years ago the rivalry was anything but healthy. Late in the 2004 game in Death Valley the two teams were involved in a brawl that put a black eye on the state of South Carolina.
"It was ugly about six years ago in that game at Death Valley," Spurrier said. "It was a terrible scene for our state of South Carolina. I don't sense any way that can happen with the coaching staffs that are in place now and the players that are in place. It will be a hard-fought game. I don't think there will be any trash talk or late hits."
Spurrier also displaced the rumors that negative recruiting exists between the two programs.
"There's no badmouthing in recruiting between Clemson and South Carolina now," Spurrier said. "I realize some fans don't want to hear that, but I think that's the way it should be, and I think Dabo and his guys think that's the way it should be."
A topic of debate during the summers between the two fan bases is moving the game to the beginning of the season.
"It would be fine with me," Spurrier said. "Having it at the end of the year is difficult because we're not in the same conference. If we're in the same conference it would be a big game like Oklahoma-Oklahoma State and Auburn-Alabama."
The idea is always met with mixed reviews among fans. Some love the idea while others love the idea of letting things build over the three months before the teams step on the field. Two other major rivalries, Florida-Florida State and Georgia-Georgia Tech are played the same week as the Carolina-Clemson game.
"They probably talk about moving the game also, but neither of them have either," Spurrier said. "Either way is fine with me, but it would make sense if we moved it to the first game of the year. That would give both groups of fans something to talk about all summer."
Slowing Down Bowers
While South Carolina is ranked at the top of the country in team sacks, Clemson has the sacks leader in junior defensive end Da'Quan Bowers. Bowers has 15.5 sacks this season, three more than second-place Ryan Kerrigan of Purdue.
"He's one of the best defensive linemen we'll play against all year," Spurrier said. "He's a projected first round NFL guy; maybe in the first four or five picks. Sometimes our guys had trouble blocking those Troy guys, so I'm sure we'll have trouble blocking him."
While the Gamecocks will have to pay attention to where #93 lines up, there's no need to come up with fancy ways of keeping Bowers away from Garcia.
"Maybe we'll let a back chip off or have a tight end, but we don't throw the ball that much to have to devise a bunch of protection schemes," Spurrier said. "We'll try to run it and throw it real quickly when we're throwing. Hopefully our guys can handle him a bit. He's a very good player. Their defensive line is about as good as any around."
Even though South Carolina is at the top of the country in sacks they have no one that has near as many sacks as Bowers. Melvin Ingram, who leads the team with eight, isn't even in the top 20 nationally.
"It means Coach Brad Lawing rotates our players a lot with Devin Taylor, Melvin Ingram, Travian Robertson, Ladi Ajiboye and Cliff Matthews," Spurrier said. "All five of them have quite a few (sacks). That's just the way it is. Sometimes one guy gets most of them like Alshon gets most of the passes and Marcus gets most of the runs. That's just the way it's been with our defensive line. They've all contributed."
Lattimore and Jeffery Plenty Rested
It only took a quarter and seven carries for Marcus Lattimore to earn SEC Freshman of the Week honors. Lattimore finished with 102 yards and three touchdowns. Jeffery played a little while longer, finishing with 123 yards receiving on five catches.
"(Lattimore) carried 40 (times) the week before and was fine against Troy," Spurrier said. "That's the kind of player we have. He probably could have made 250 or 300 yards rushing if that was our goal against Troy, but that's not our goal."
Alshon Jeffery played a little while longer, finishing with 123 yards receiving on five catches.
"Alshon was fine sitting out the second half also. He could have ran up his stats in the second half also, but our guys understand its an opportunity for our players to play that haven't had the chance to play much this year. We have guys that believe it's all about the team and whatever we achieve as a team is what will be remembered this year."
The Gamecocks will obviously try and get the running game going early, but certain situations will dictate where the Gamecocks turn.
"I'm sure they'll have a bunch of guys at the line of scrimmage to stop our running game and try to stop Marcus," Spurrier said "We may need to throw a little bit more or a little less. You never know until the game gets going. Starting out against Georgia, we didn't think we'd run 37 times, and against Florida we didn't know he'd run 40 times, but we got ahead. We know we have to run the ball. That's what we do best, but we also have to keep finding Alshon (Jeffery) and these other receivers when it looks good."
Turning the Tide
As Gamecock fans are reminded seemingly each and every day by Clemson fans, the Gamecocks have not fared too well in the series. The Tigers have won the vast majority of games, but Spurrier says his team isn't too concerned about that.
"It would be nice to just win the game," Spurrier said. "We don't generally talk about that that much. They have won a whole lot more than we have, it's no question. We're just trying to play our best to win the game this week. Everything else we can't have control over. We'll just try our best to beat them this week."
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