It's that time again.
Saturday night will be the 109th meeting between the state of South Carolina's two biggest programs. There have been blowouts, last second missed field goals, last second made field goals, controversy, and no one around in 2004 will forget the brawl that was the most embarrassing moment of the heated rivalry.
Clemson has a large lead in the overall series – as Tiger fans are quick to remind Gamecock fans – but it has been South Carolina that has dominated the last two match-ups. After C.J. Spiller ran the opening kickoff back for a touchdown in the 2009 meeting, it was all Gamecocks from there as they rolled to a 34-17 victory. Last season Kyle Parker found DeAndre Hopkins on a 45-yard touchdown pass on the first drive of the game, but Carolina would again dominate the game in a 29-7 victory.
Despite Clemson's success on the football field and Carolina's moderate success, Saturday will be just the fourth time both teams have been ranked entered the regular season finale. Both teams are 9-2 on the season and Carolina enters the game ranked 14th and the Tigers are ranked 16th.
"We're looking forward to a big ball game Saturday night at 7:45," Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier said at his weekly press conference Tuesday. "We're a couple teams with the same record right now. Obviously a lot on the line for us. We're trying to win a state championship and they're trying to win it also. They have a big game the following week, and we don't. That's a little bit of a difference in the situation we're both in. We do have the same record, of course. Both teams, I'm sure, will be excited to play. Hopefully we'll play a good one."
Even though the Gamecocks will not be playing for an SEC Championship next week, it will still be a prime time match-up that will be televised nationally on ESPN with Brad Nessler, Todd Blackledge and Holly Rowe calling the game. It will bring national attention that hasn't been seen in the rivalry in several years.
"It helps both schools," Spurrier said. "It helps our state. If we were both 11-0, that'd be even better. We're both 9-2. I guess they lost a couple of conference games, we lost a couple of conference games. It worked out, of course they're the division winner, and ours didn't work out. We had another team go 7-1, so we didn't win ours. I think it's neat for our state that we had two teams in the top 25 all year and occasionally in the top 15. They've been in the top 10 until this past week."
The Tigers have not always looked great this season and have faced several deficits, but they have done enough to come back and win the game. That was until last week. Clemson got down big early against N.C. State and never were able to come back, suffering a humiliating 37-13 loss to the Wolfpack.
"They haven't dropped that far," Spurrier said. "I know they had a lousy game last week. This is a very good team. They won nine games and didn't do a lot of scoring accidentally. We have to really play well if we're going to have a chance to beat these guys. I know they had a bad game last week, but they're very capable."
Williams-Brice Stadium will certainly be electric Saturday night and the game should be exciting for those watching across the country. Who will win the 109th meeting?
Obviously freshman speedster Sammy Watkins is arguably the reason why the Tigers have been so successful this season. Watkins is third in the country in total yards per game, averaging 187 yards per game. He is 15th in receiving yards per game and 21st in kickoff returns and has scored 11 touchdowns.
"I don't know exactly the best way to always contain a great receiver," Spurrier said. "Sometimes you zone behind him. Sometimes you bump and run and give him help. He's a very good player. Obviously, he can return kicks and go the distance. Very talented young man to have his size – I think he was the 200 meter champion in the state of Florida. They've got some fast kids down in Florida. That shows you the type of speed he possesses. We'll hopefully have a plan similar to whatever has been working against them."
Watkins, who missed last week's loss due to injury but is expected back this week, will certainly be looking to do what Spiller did two years ago. Watkins has a kick return for a touchdown in the comeback at Maryland this season and the Gamecocks have been atrocious in the kickoff department. Carolina is dead last in the SEC in kick coverage and has already given up one return for a touchdown against Arkansas.
"We're going to hope that special teams doesn't beat us again this week," Spurrier said. "Not that Arkansas beat us through special teams, but they did run one back untouched. We've just got to be careful. If we have to kick a few grounders out there, that's what we'll have to do. Our kickoff coverage – it's embarrassing that we can't get a bunch of guys down there to sort of converge on the ball and keep them inside the 30. We just miss a lot of tackles and it seems like we go down there and get blocked a lot. That's just sort of where we are in that area."
Injuries Piling Up
Usually when you schedule an FCS opponent the week before your rivalry game is for healing up and getting younger players experience. The Gamecocks got some younger guys in the 41-20 win over the Citadel Saturday, but certainly did not heal up. Reginald Bowens suffered a stinger, Bruce Ellington suffered a mild ankle sprain, DeMario Jeffery had a high ankle sprain, and Qua Gilchrist and Jadeveon Clowney suffered mild concussions.
"We've had a few guys get knicked up the last game," Spurrier said. "Hopefully we'll have all of them available. Maybe one or two will not. We're not sure yet. That will be a decision as we go if they're healthy and ready to play."
The Gamecocks have been plagued by injuries all season. The most notable injury was the season-ending injury to All-American running back Marcus Lattimore, but Carolina has rarely gone into a game full of healthy bodies.
"I can't remember this many sort of key injuries to running backs," Spurrier said. "I never remember that many really even on the entire team. We've got good, quality backup players. Brandon Wilds, of course, stepped in and did very well. We had some injuries at other positions and other guys have stepped in and did really well."
Saturday's game will mark the final home game for 15 Gamecock players. Antonio Allen, Akeem Auguste, C.C. Whitlock, Jason Barnes, Terrence Campbell, Josh Hinch, Melvin Ingram, Marty Markett, Byron McKnight, Kyle Nunn (will apply for medical hardship), Rodney Paulk, Travian Robertson, Joey Scribner-Howard, Rokevious Watkins, and Jay Wooten will all run out of the tunnel for the final time against Clemson.
"They've done a good job," Spurrier said. "Travian Robertson, Melvin, a lot of guys. Terrence Campbell, another one of our seniors on the line. Those guys have done a good job of trying to provide leadership and keep the young guys pretty much in line, focused, and so forth. Yeah, it's neat to be the only back-to-back nine wins and hopefully a little bit more. We realize the opportunity is out there. We're going to try our best to keep playing as hard and smart as we can. We'll see where we're at after all is said and done after whatever bowl game we go to."
Rivalry week is here
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