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CLEMSON, S.C. – No. 23 Clemson hopes its five-year countdown is finally coming to a close.
The Tigers (8-3) have lost a school-worst five straight games to rival South Carolina (6-5), a streak so distasteful that Clemson coaches installed countdown clocks last spring to remind players things must change.
The chance do change things comes Saturday when the teams close the regular season at Death Valley, the 112th meeting in a series the Tigers (No. 21 College Football Playoff) have dominated 64-42-4 — except the past five seasons.
"It's not something that's ruined our six years here," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "But it's something that we've got to get changed."
In a state without major professional sports teams, Palmetto State fans spend most of the year celebrating their team's win or waiting for the next chance to get on top.
For South Carolina supporters, the party's lasted 1,793 days since Gamecocks won 34-17 in 2009. When Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier arrived after the 2004 season, he had all the "Beat Clemson" signs removed from the complex, saying there were plenty of other important games for his players to worry about before its yearly battle with the Tigers.
That approach has worked well. Spurrier long ago became the school's all-time leader in coaching victories — he's at 83 and counting — and South Carolina has been among college football's best with three straight 11-win seasons from 2011 through 2013.
The matchup with Clemson "is always in the back of our heads," Gamecocks linebacker Sharrod Golightly said. "But we're in the best conference in the nation, so we have to worry about week-to-week preparation."
Clemson's seniors are eager to avoid the fate of last year's group, of ending their careers without a victory over the Gamecocks.
"We've never been part of a team owning somebody for five years, but we want to get that taste out of our mouths," Clemson defensive tackle DeShawn Williams said. "Enough is enough. We have to make up our minds to just play."
Things to watch when No. 23 Clemson plays host to South Carolina:
No. 1 DEFENSE: Clemson's defense has been stalking the top spot for much the season, rising to No. 1 nationally after holding Georgia State to 155 yards in a 28-0 victory last week. It was the fifth time this year the Tigers held an opponent to fewer than 200 yards of offense.
THOMPSON'S MARK: South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson is 176 passing yards away from the school's all-time single-season yardage mark, Todd Ellis' 3,206 yards set in 1987. Two years ago at Death Valley, Thompson was a little-known backup forced into action because of starter Connor Shaw's injury and he responded with 310 yards and three touchdowns in the Gamecocks 27-17 win.
WHERE'S WATSON? Clemson is waiting on word whether star freshman Deshaun Watson will return as starting quarterback this weekend. Watson supplanted senior starter Cole Stoudt at the position against Florida State in September and stayed under center until breaking a bone in his throwing hand against Louisville on Oct. 11. Watson was back to play No. 16 Georgia Tech (No. 16 CFP), but sprained a knee ligament early and missed last week's game against Georgia State. Watson returned to practice this week, yet Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he's not decided if Watson will play.
YOUNG DAVIS: The Davis family has been on both sides of this rivalry, with Gamecocks tailback Mike Davis attempting to join older brother — and former Clemson 1,000-yard tailback — James with three victories in the series. James and his Tigers win in 2005, 2007 and 2008. Mike has been part of South Carolina's past two wins and the junior is only 112 yards shy of joining Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers as the only runners in school history with multiple 1,000-yard seasons. Davis rushed for 1,183 yards last season while Rogers did it three straight seasons from 1978-1980.
PHAROH WATCH: South Carolina standout Pharoh Cooper sustained a ribcage injury in last week's 37-12 win over South Alabama that's kept him from some early week practices. But Spurrier expects him to play. Cooper is second in the SEC with 58 catches and 921 yards. He's South Carolina's most versatile offensive player, proving that against Tennessee on Nov. 1 when he threw, caught and passed for a touchdown in the 45-42 overtime loss.