Published November 23, 2011
| Sports Network
Dabo Swinney's Tigers locked up the ACC's Atlantic Division crown two weeks ago with a win over Wake Forest and will play for a spot in a BCS bowl when they take on either Virginia or Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship game on December 3rd. Behind a potent offensive attack, Clemson went out and posted a 9-2 record to this point, although the team enters this contest off a disappointing 37-13 loss at NC State last week.
Swinney recognizes the importance of this rivalry.
"This is an exciting week in college football. It's an exciting week in our state. It's a huge game. This is one of those rare moments in this series where both teams are ranked and both teams are playing for a 10th win. It's a big, big, big ball game."
Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks have fought through adversity this season to also post a 9-2 mark. However, the team's 6-2 record in SEC play isn't good enough to put it in a second straight SEC Title game, as the East Division crown has gone to Georgia. South Carolina does enter the regular-season finale with two straight wins in tow, including a 41-20 victory over the Citadel last weekend.
This is the 109th meeting in this series and the 103rd consecutive year that these two programs have met. Clemson holds a 65-39-4 series advantage, although South Carolina has won each of the last two seasons.
The Tigers find themselves with a chance to win the ACC title thanks to one of the nation's most explosive offenses. The team is averaging 465.3 yards per game, highlighted by a prolific passing attack that is generating 307.2 yards per outing.
It starts with sophomore signal-caller Tahj Boyd, who has played as well as any signal-caller in the country in stretches this season. Boyd has completed 61.5 percent of his passes thus far, for 3,255 yards, with 27 TDs.
It definitely helps to have perhaps the nation's top young talent on the outside in the form of 6-1 freshman Sammy Watkins, who has racked up 68 catches, for 1,034 yards and 10 TDs.
Spurrier is certainly aware of Watkins' big play ability.
"I don't know the best way to always contain a great receiver. Sometimes you zone behind them, and sometimes you bump and run to give help. He's a pretty great player. Obviously he can return kicks and go the distance. A very talented young man to have his size. I think he was the 200-meter champion in the state of Florida. They have fast kids in Florida, so that shows you the type of speed he possesses. We'll hopefully have a plan similar to whatever has been working."
The ground game has the ability to move the chains as well in Death Valley, led by the rushing exploits of tailback Andre Ellington (871 yards, nine TDs).
The Clemson defense plays second-fiddle to the offense in terms of overall production, but this is still a talent-laden squad nonetheless. The Tigers have been vulnerable to the run this season (184.4 ypg), but have done a nice job against the pass (195.8 ypg).
The Tigers have possessed some serious talent up front the last few seasons and 2011 has been no different. The defensive line has been anchored all year by defensive end Andre Branch, who leads the team in tackles (69), TFLs (14.0) and sacks (8.5). Defensive tackle Brandon Thompson (65 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks) has been active as well. Jonathan Willard (64 tackles) headlines the linebacking corps.
South Carolina's offense has been an evolving entity in 2011, with the losses of All-American tailback Marcus Lattimore (knee injury) and quarterback Stephen Garcia (dismissed from the team).
Spurrier however, has found a gem in sophomore QB Connor Shaw, who has played with poise for the most part, completing 64.9 percent of his throws, for 1,008 yards and nine TDs. It certainly helps the transition of any signal-caller to have one of the nation's finest receivers at his disposal. Junior wideout Alshon Jeffery is a special talent, leading USC in receptions (43), receiving yards (585) and TD catches (six).
The loss of Lattimore in the backfield has hurt more, but it has allowed freshman Brandon Wilds to earn increased playing time. The 6-1, 225-pound youngster has shown flashes, rushing for 4.6 yards per carry and scoring three TDs. Shaw has actually aided the ground game as well, with 376 yards and six rushing TDs.
Swinney is impressed with how Spurrier has handled the offensive losses.
"He has done a great job after losing [Stephen] Garcia and [Marcus] Lattimore. They've played to their strengths and given themselves a chance to win."
The USC defense has been productive for the most part this season, limiting foes to just 19.4 ppg. The rush defense has been generous at times, but the pass defense has been stellar, holding opponents to a mere 137.5 yards per game. The team as a whole is allowing just 279.5 yards of total offense, good for fifth in the country.
Defensive end Melvin Ingram has been unstoppable off the edges. The 6-2, 276- pound senior has amassed 39 total tackles, with 11.5 TFLs, 6.5 sacks, two INTs and one fumble recovery. Antonio Allen (team-high 74 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, three INTs), D.J. Swearinger (71 tackles, three INTs) and Stephon Gilmore (41 tackles, three INTs) have been extremely active in the back seven.