No. 4 Clemson Tigers seeking another victory vs. rival South Carolina
By PETE IACOBELLI
AP Sports Writer
CLEMSON, S.C. — Dabo Swinney has been on the right side of the Clemson-South Carolina matchup enough times to know how good things are when you win.
“There’s no question that there’s a little different smiles on people’s faces when you show up,” Swinney joked.
Especially, if the fourth-ranked Tigers (10-1, No. 4 CFP) can win their third straight game against the revived Gamecocks (6-5) on Saturday night. A win moves Clemson a step closer to a second consecutive berth in the College Football Playoffs. A loss most likely leaves the Tigers on the outside of the four-team tournament and pondering all that could’ve been.
“It’s a huge game for all of us,” Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett said.
And maybe not as easy as it looked in midseason.
South Carolina has found its stride behind freshman quarterback Jake Bentley, who’s play has helped the Gamecocks win four of their past five games to qualify for a bowl in coach Will Muschamp’s first season.
A Gamecocks win, the players know too well, would rank among the most consequential victories in series history.
Receiver Deebo Samuel said the second-half run this season has South Carolina fired up for success.
“We’re going out there with a little more energy trying to ruin their season,” Samuel said.
Clemson has played into that narrative at home too often this season. There have been way-too-close wins over Troy and North Carolina State at Death Valley. Two weeks ago, the Tigers were stung by Pittsburgh on a last-second field goal in a 43-42 defeat, their first home loss since 2013.
Swinney and the Tigers have said all the right things since then, that they paid a price for comfort and complacency. The Gamecocks hope time hasn’t run out to take advantage of Clemson’s mistakes.
“Are our guys going to be excited about playing this game? Absolutely, because of the rivalry, because it’s Clemson, because they’ve got a good football team,” Muschamp said. “That’s all great, but we need to be able to walk out in between the white lines and be motivated by our preparation.”
Some other things to watch when No. 4 Clemson plays South Carolina:
WATSON’S FAREWELL: Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is expected to play in final game in Death Valley, the junior considered a pro prospect that will go high in next spring’s NFL draft. Watson, though, has not discussed his future, saying that will come at a more appropriate time. “Who knows what’s going to happen,” he said.
BENTLEY BALL: South Carolina has a freshman quarterback in Jake Bentley making a big splash, sort of like Watson did as a freshman in this rivalry two years ago. In that game, Deshaun Watson accounted for four touchdowns in a 35-17 Tigers win, playing on a torn ACL. A healthy Bentley will be seeking to snap Clemson’s two game rivalry win streak. He’s thrown for nearly 1,000 yards and six TDs in his five starts.
FACING THE TIGERS: Will Muschamp played for Georgia from 1991-93, a stretch that included a 27-12 upset of eventual ACC champion Clemson. “It was a big upset in Athens,” Muschamp said with a smile. “We didn’t play them again until (1994) at our place. Or their place. Georgia’s place. Not our place anymore.”
DOWDLE’S SUCCESS: Tailback Rico Dowdle has been a big reason why South Carolina’s offense has improved the second half of the season. Dowdle has run for 100 yards or more in three of the past four games, including 226 in a win over Western Carolina last week. For the Gamecocks to succeed, Dowdle will need to make yards against Clemson’s defense, which has limited opponents to 129 yards rushing a game this season.
SAME AS THE IRON BOWL: Dabo Swinney, the former Alabama receiver and assistant coach, said there’s little difference between the Iron Bowl and Clemson’s rivalry with South Carolina, other than Alabama and Auburn sharing the same SEC division. Swinney said Clemson and South Carolina have the same fire and passion for the game as in the state of Alabama. “You’ve got to choose,” he said of fans in the state. “Who are you pulling for because I need to know because it’s going to determine if we talk this week or ever again.”