There’s just no way.
At least that’s the immediate reaction when you delve into Clemson’s statistics and try to figure out how South Carolina might shock the college football world Saturday night. The Tigers are as statistically dominant in the ACC as Alabama is in the SEC, leading to the natural assumption that the two programs will meet for a third straight time to determine the national crown.
Unless, of course, the Gamecocks intervene. No question, this is a vastly improved South Carolina team from the one that went up to Death Valley a year ago and got drilled 56-7. Coach Will Muschamp has done a tremendous job winning eight games (so far) despite a rash of injuries to key personnel. The game is also at William-Brice Stadium, and it’s at night, and strange things can happen when you enter those two variables into the equation.
But still, it’s hard to find a weakness on this fourth-ranked Clemson team, which has been installed as an early 14-point favorite by Las Vegas books. If starting quarterback Kelly Bryant doesn’t get hurt, it’s hard to believe the Tigers are upset by Syracuse. But even with that little hiccup, the Tigers are so sound defensively and so effective running the ball, it’s very easy to envision them heading to Columbia and grinding out a fourth consecutive victory in the series.
South Carolina, of course, will have other ideas. While they never really threatened to win the game, the Gamecocks proved very competitive at Georgia when the Bulldogs were No. 1 in the College Football Playoff poll, although the eventual 14-point difference in that game is the same as the spread this week. Still, there was no blinking from a South Carolina team that was wide-eyed against similar competition last year, and this one is at home.
If the Gamecocks are to finish the job against Clemson, here are three things that have to happen:
1. Put all the pressure on Bryant
He’s not Deshaun Watson (who is), but the Clemson signal-caller has proven more than adept at running the Tigers’ offense. And yet, if there’s one area on offense where Dabo Swinney’s team is less than perfect, it’s in the downfield passing game, where Clemson has often lacked the punch of the big play.
That’s just fine with Muschamp’s defense, which is based on protecting the middle of the field and denying the home run ball. Clemson certainly will enter the game trying to establish the run behind Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster, and the Gamecocks will face a chore similar to the one that awaited them at rush-heavy Georgia. But Bryant hasn’t thrown for more than 207 yards against an FBS opponent since mid-September, and the Gamecocks are going to want to make the quarterback try to beat them.
Of course, they tried the same thing at Georgia, and Jake Fromm was up to the task. Bryant has a better supporting cast, and if he does the same, the South Carolina defense will get worn down by an relentless rushing game yet again.
2. Make it come down to a kick
Or at least, force the Tigers to settle for field goal attempts in the red zone. Because you think Parker White has been an adventure for South Carolina? Let us introduce you to Alex Spence.
The Clemson kicker, forced into action when Greg Huegel was lost for the season after suffering an injury in practice, was 4-for-9 kicking entering the game with The Citadel last week. He hasn’t hit anything longer than 30 yards all season. Clemson as a team ranked 13th last week in the ACC in field goal kicking, with 7 makes on 14 attempts.
Of course, the Tigers are so efficient in the red zone — entering last week Clemson was third in the ACC in red zone offense, with 25 touchdowns in 35 trips — they haven’t had to rely on their kicker a whole lot. But for a team with national title aspirations, it has to be a concern when your kicker is a mere 1-for-6 from beyond 30 yards.
Clemson gave walk-on Christian Groomes a look last week against The Citadel, and he converted one from 38 yards. So maybe Clemson will give the kid another chance this weekend at Williams-Brice.
3. Feed off the home crowd
An intangible, to be sure, but a necessary one if the Gamecocks hope to win this game. There will be no shortage of motivation in the South Carolina locker room, not after last season. Gamecocks players will certainly bring up the “never again” that they used as a mantra in the wake of 56-7, not to mention some of the things Bryson Allen-Williams and Dante Sawyer claim to have heard directed at them on the field.
So yeah, it’s going to be lit. It also promises to be chippy, given the hard feelings last season’s game left with so many in garnet and black. The Gamecocks need to be careful against coming out so keyed up, it takes a toll on focus and execution. But that atmosphere will be real, backed by an honest belief that South Carolina has a chance in this game.
Do they? Hey, remember what happened the last time these teams met in Columbia, when a 3-9 South Carolina team fell to Watson and top-ranked Clemson 37-32.
And that game was in the daytime.
Nighttime, in Williams-Brice? Crazier things have happened.