CLEMSON — Jordan McFadden paused and then smiled as he considered the question, likely because Clemson’s left tackle didn’t want to say anything juicy enough that it would snag on his rival’s bulletin board.
But he had to be kind of surprised by South Carolina’s 63-38 loss to then-No. 5 Tennessee, right?
“As transparent as can be, I was a bit surprised,” McFadden said. “But as we know, college football is for you. Anything can happen on any day.”
The Gamecocks’ result was certainly a head turner, especially in the week leading up to their visit to Death Valley. South Carolina’s highs in the season included wins over Kentucky and Tennessee, but the Gamecocks averaged 16 points in losses to Florida and Missouri.
Last week’s 63 points significantly changed the feel behind Clemson-South Carolina on November 26th. But the Tigers don’t like that.
“I think it’s great that they did that,” said tight end Jake Briningstool. “They come here hot and have a sense of arrogance, I think that’s perfect for us.”
South Carolina (7-4) would still have caught Clemson’s attention.
As coach Dabo Swinney likes to say, the rivalry game is a season in itself. Lose this one and whatever has happened in the past few weeks doesn’t seem to matter.
But the Tigers, who are trying to sneak back into the college football playoffs, would taint their 2022 season in more ways than one if the Gamecocks gave them the Tennessee treatment. Clemson (10-1) has won 40 straight games at Memorial Stadium, the longest home winning streak in ACC history. Clemson also has a seven-game winning streak that surpasses his rival, one short of the longest streak on the streak for either team.
The Tigers didn’t face a terribly strong offense last season, going to Williams-Brice Stadium and claiming a 30-0 win. Oklahoma transfer Spencer Rattler didn’t look like the Gamecocks’ savior as quarterback in the days leading up to Nov. 19, throwing eight touchdowns for nine interceptions.
But then Rattler threw 438 yards and six points on the Volunteers’ secondary. Jaheim Bell, the Gamecocks’ 6-foot-3, 232-pound tight end, moved into the backfield and rushed for 82 yards. Bell also caught a few touchdown passes, but junior receiver Antwane Wells Jr. rampaged with 11 catches for 177 yards.
“They looked explosive,” said Clemson linebacker Barrett Carter. “They have a good back, good receivers, experienced O-Line. They just looked like they were connecting on all levels. I’m sure they feel good after this win. So we’re just going to try to put an end to this.”
Defensively, the Tigers go into this week with some confidence, recovering well from a worrying 35-14 loss at Notre Dame. They just held Miami on six first downs and 98 total yards. Over the past two weeks, Clemson has accumulated nine quarterback sacks.
Putting pressure on Rattler seems to be the Tigers’ top priority.
“Basically, make it as stressful as possible for him,” Carter said. “Because when he’s comfortable, he’s dangerous. That will be an emphasis. Try to make him uncomfortable and see if we can get the ball out of his hands.”
They want to upset the Gamecocks. But it’s no problem if they come to Death Valley together. Carter put it bluntly, “We want them to be in their A-game because we’re going to be in our A-game.”
Clemson needed little encouragement to take South Carolina seriously because it is South Carolina. Too many people are interested in the rivalry, which Carter, a native of Georgia, discovered last season when he walked onto the field warming up at Williams Brice Stadium with debris flying his way.
McFadden, who hails from Spartanburg, grew up understanding how much South Carolina fans hated Clemson and vice versa. He qualified for the Tigers during a period of Clemson’s success, but Swinney fondly reminds his players of the beginning of his tenure as head coach, when the Gamecocks won five straight games from 2009 to 2013.
South Carolina’s win over Tennessee shows, if anything, that the unexpected can always happen. Clemson needs the chaos to keep going because the Tigers won’t make the playoffs if teams like TCU and Southern Cal keep winning.
Whether or not the Gamecocks won last week, Clemson needed to win this week to keep his playoff hopes alive. McFadden and his senior teammates needed a win to end their careers unbeaten at home.
“It’s South Carolina,” McFadden said, “but they’re getting in the way of what we’re trying to accomplish as a team. That is motivation enough for us.”