Title hurdle: South Carolina stands in way of No. 1 Clemson
Nov. 27, 2015
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Top-ranked Clemson has been here before: With its undefeated season on the line and facing its bitter rival.
"It's definitely a different dynamic you have to get through," said Bill Smith, a defensive lineman on the 1981 title team that won 29-13 at South Carolina on the way to the championship.
Clemson fans are hoping for a bit of de ja vu.
The unbeaten Tigers (11-0) close the regular season against the Gamecocks (3-8) on Saturday. A Clemson victory likely maintains its spot in the College Football Playoff rankings. A loss would go down as perhaps the most shocking result in the series that began in 1896.
"This game isn't any more important to them than it is to us," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "We're going to get everybody's best effort each and every week. But that's really not our focus. It's really just about how we play. All I know is South Carolina is going to play their tails off, but so are we."
Smith recalls how difficult the 1981 Gamecocks made it for Tigers — and he knows this current team understands it won't be a walk in the park.
"They know what's ahead of them," said Smith, a member of Clemson's board of trustees.
Clemson's road to a title is certainly a longer trek than what Smith's team faced. The Tigers play North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game on Dec. 5 and then, if still undefeated, await a national semifinal game at New Year's
The ultimate prize comes in January if the Tigers get into the national championship contest.
South Carolina comes in off a 23-22 loss to FCS opponent Citadel, its first loss to a lower division team in 25 years.
Gamecocks interim coach Shawn Elliott said his players have shown more intensity at practice.
"There was more of a focused look and energy into what we had to prepare for this week and the No. 1 team in the nation in Clemson," he said. "The mentality seemed to be right on point."
Some other things to watch when No. 1 Clemson plays at South Carolina:
STARTING A STREAK: Clemson is still smarting from its five straight rivalry losses from 2009-13 and wants to continue a run of its own after last season's streak breaking 35-17 victory over the Gamecocks. "Losing those games didn't feel good," Clemson defensive tackle D.J. Reader said.
COOPER'S FINALE: South Carolina's 1,000-yard receiver Pharoh Cooper is playing his last game, saying he intends to give up his final season with the Gamecocks for the NFL. He's projected as a third-round pick in next year's draft.
STYLE POINTS: Count on Clemson sticking it to South Carolina should it have the chance to protect its place atop the College Football Playoff rankings — and enhance the Heisman Trophy chances of quarterback Deshaun Watson. Despite leading Wake Forest by 20 points late in the fourth quarter last week, Swinney put Watson back in to throw long at the end.
GETTING HEALTHY: Clemson played without a pair of starters last week in tailback Wayne Gallman and cornerback Mackensie Alexander. Both are in the lineup this week. Gallman is seeking to build on his 1,000-yard season while Alexander will likely shadow Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina's best playmaker.
NEXT UP: Don't expect a Dabo Swinney-type transition from interim to permanent head coach for South Carolina's Shawn Elliott this season. Elliott, the former offensive line coach, has been promised an interview for the job and, while improvement is obvious since Steve Spurrier's mid-October resignation, the wins have not followed. Swinney came into the rivalry game 3-2 in his mid-season stint in 2008 and recalled how feeling he could win the game — and he was carried off the field after a 31-14 with the Death Valley crowd chanting "Dabo" — it would've been hard to deny him the fulltime job.