Clemson game key to progress under Spurrier

Progress in the Steve Spurrier era at South Carolina will be certified by a win in Saturday's matchup with arch-rival Clemson. A loss means an also-ran program is still looking for a way into the race. If last year's 31-28 win over the Tigers was a landmark, Saturday's game is a benchmark.

The Gamecocks not only need to beat the Tigers to gain a seventh win and secure the school's first ever streak of three straight bowl games, but they must win to re-establish a rivalry and to show that Spurrier is improving the program. A loss shows that the football program is in neutral and acting too much like past Carolina programs- hoping for the future.

Clemson has won 5 of the last 7 in the series, 8 of the last 10 and USC has not won two straight against Clemson since 1968-69-70. Lou Holtz won just 1 game in his 5 years while bringing respectability back to the football program. Spurrier blew his first chance, a 13-9 loss during the memorable 2005 season when it seemed the right play at the right time led to consecutive close wins over Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida. Those victories had USC fans crowing that the Gamecocks had arrived. If ever there seemed a time that Carolina could start a new streak to signal a new era against Clemson, it was 2005. And USC blew several chances to win that contest. The team seemed unable to comprehend it could actually take the game instead of hoping it was given to them. A close loss in a bowl season was minimized by those three straight close wins but despite the "luck" in 2005, the Clemson loss may have been the most disappointing loss of the Spurrier era. Forget the fourth quarter 1st and 35 debacle. USC outgained Clemson by about 2-1 in total yards in the first half, yet had just two field goals when two touchdowns would have won the game. The teams tied in total offense at the end of the game, but USC had many more touchdown opportunities.

Last year's 31-28 win by USC should be remembered for several things: USC dominated the game but won by only 3; Clemson's missed field goal after a Carolina sack came on a final drive that could have been a game winner for the Tigers if Reggie Meriwether was left in the game, and that infamous fourth and one gamble by Spurrier on USC's opening drive of the second half that was stuffed inside the USC 35 and led to an easy Tiger touchdown. The first is to USC's credit, the second to Clemson's detriment, and the third hopefully will be forgotten forever by the final gun Saturday night – if USC wins. A loss means Carolina is standing still.

To show progress under Spurrier, Carolina MUST beat Clemson to give his program 2 out of 3 contests. Spurrier's Gamecocks have gone 1-2 against Georgia, 1-2 against Florida, 1-2 against Tennessee and even 1-2 against Arkansas in his three seasons at Carolina. Going 1-2 against Clemson with a loss Saturday will put Carolina and its fans back in the question zone: Is the program going to compete as Spurrier says he wants to and he says it should? Winning four of 12 against your major rivals seems a lot worse than having a 5-7 record against them in three seasons, and it is. A win against Clemson gives extra satisfaction and hope to Carolina fans, and to in-state recruits. A 5-7 record allows people to dwell on the "what ifs" that would give USC a winning record against these four schools, while a 4-8 record makes the Gamecock faithful more likely to wonder "where is this program headed?" especially if Spurrier can't even beat Clemson two out of three.

Several times during the four straight losses, Spurrier has said he is staying positive because Carolina's best days are ahead. He pointed out the 6-1 Gamecocks were not the sixth best team in the country before the Vanderbilt loss. Spurrier reminded the media one week later that the third year under a new coach is usually the worst and pointed to Notre Dame as a prime example.

"This is not the best team we're ever going to have here," he said the week after the Vanderbilt loss. "Hopefully our fans know that, too. Our big recruiting class was last year, so we're still in the building process. We're not in the final stages. This is not our final best team ever. I hope everyone understands that. We expect to have another strong recruiting class this year, to go with last year's."

"We're still building a football program." Spurrier said less than one month ago.

Unfortunately, his team and staff seem to have listened to him and produced just enough results to be in the games, at times, but not close to a win except at Tennessee, where a variety of things could have been changed in the fourth quarter to change the result to a win.

Beat Clemson and Spurrrier is 2-1 against his arch-rival, and the hyper-sensitive Clemson fans worrying that the sky is falling in Tigertown are closer to the truth than anyone else. Lose to Clemson and Spurrier is another Carolina coach promising a better future - a better resume and more talented players but limited results so far. No doubt the players competing for Carolina today are better than under any other USC coach – but the SEC of today, heck even the SEC East alone, is better than any Carolina opposition of the past. And Clemson is in the ACC, a conference that top to bottom is not the equal of the SEC – no conference in America is the SEC's equal, year in and year out. All in all, shouldn't Carolina beat Clemson 2 out of 3, or at least 3 out of 5 under Spurrier?

Spurrier has undoubtedly done more with less in some situations than any Gamecock fan could expect. But four straight losses after an unexpectedly great start have boiled the season down to this: win or go home.

And the Spurrier era so far has boiled down to this game. Win and you can turn around the recent Carolina-Clemson series record and send the program upward. USC can even envision winning three in a row or even four out of five to top any Carolina streak against Clemson over the last forty years. Lose and USC is 1-2 against every team that matters, each program that Spurrier said the Gamecocks must beat to compete for the championships he says are possible even at an SEC "also-ran." Spurrier did not say he could produce one magical season in five years. Coach Joe Morrison produced two, 1984 and 1987, as an Independent. Coach Brad Scott earned USC's first bowl bid while in the SEC and won USC's first bowl game. Coach Holtz won back to back Outback Bowl games. One or two memorable seasons in a coaching career are not what Carolina fans are looking for or what Spurrier expects. Saturday's game will tell a lot about where this program stands under this coach.

One game can make a difference. Every season, one game is the difference between a bowl bid and staying home, a winning record and a non-winning record, a championship season and a good season. This season the Carolina-Clemson game is also THE Game of the Spurrier era-so far. If last season's 31-28 win at Clemson was a landmark win for Spurrier's Gamecocks, Saturday's game is a bench mark of progress. Progress is not measured by a loss. A less than .500 record against all of your rivals in three seasons is not much progress considering the goals Spurrier set and his realistic opportunity to lead USC to them. Winning 2 out of 3 games against arch-rival Clemson in three years, despite just one win over Georgia, Florida and Tennessee in 2006 or 2007 is enough to show progress when combined with the talent and potential of USC's younger players and Spurrier's track record.

Two out of three losses in three years to Clemson? The possibility of no bowl game after a 6-1 start and being ranked sixth in the country? The pressure on USC and Spurrier would start to build in July as fans would want to quickly erase a bowl-less season capped by another loss to Clemson. That's a tough situation to make progress. Beat Clemson and the future looks brighter.

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