No. 18 South Carolina focused on Clemson, not SEC
A season ago, Clemson came into this rivalry with much bigger things on its mind - and it showed in the Tigers' flat performance and South Carolina's decisive win.
Now, it's the 18th-ranked Gamecocks (8-3) seeking a championship beyond Saturday night's Palmetto State matchup and coach Steve Spurrier says his players are focused squarely defeating Clemson (6-5) and not on their first Southeastern Conference title game a week later.
''We're fortunate we got a bonus game at the end of the season,'' Spurrier said. ''It doesn't diminish anything about the game this week.''
Maybe that's because of South Carolina sorry history against the state's other marquee program. The Gamecocks have lost about two of every three games to the Tigers - Clemson leads 65-38-4 - and victory Saturday would be their first consecutive wins since taking three straight from 1968-70.
A win ''will mean a lot,'' South Carolina receiver Tori Gurley said, ''because it will just show as a team we are growing and maturing.''
That was easy to see throughout the season.
South Carolina had a year of milestones, including beating a No. 1 team for the first time (a 35-21 win over Alabama), its first-ever victory at Florida (36-14 two weeks ago) and its first trip to the SEC title game where it will face No. 2 Auburn on Dec. 4.
The Tigers had similar momentum going into 2009, winning six straight to claim it's first ACC Atlantic Division crown and vowing to bring the same intensity to South Carolina.
Instead, the Gamecocks manhandled Clemson 34-17. Star tailback C.J. Spiller was held to 18 yards, his second lowest output of the season, and the Tigers gave up two fumbles and an interception. The defense, stout against the run all year, gave up 223 to a South Carolina that finished last in SEC rushing in 2009.
And Clemson coach Dabo Swinney swears to this day his guys were not, under any circumstances, peeking ahead to its ACC championship game.
''We had a great week of practice. Put everything we had into that game,'' Swinney said. ''Just turned it over. Just didn't do the things we needed to do to win.''
A week later, however, the Tigers were crisp on offense and held a fourth-quarter lead before losing the ACC title to Georgia Tech, 39-34.
Spurrier has a long, albeit poor, history in playing rivals before chasing titles. He was 1-5-1 against Florida State when his Florida Gators had the SEC championship game ahead.
His teams at Florida, though, may not have been as motivated by history as this South Carolina group is. Beating Clemson would bring the Gamecocks just their third 9-win season since starting football in 1892.
''It means a lot to us,'' South Carolina defensive end Cliff Matthews said. ''Last summer, when we were setting our goals, beating Clemson was one of our goals. The opportunity is there to take advantage of it.''
The smart play for Spurrier and the Gamecocks might be resting stars like running back Marcus Lattimore and receiver Alshon Jeffery. Lattimore has rushed for over 1,000 yards and Jeffery leads the SEC with 1,210 yards in catches, the first time in school history they've had a runner-wideout combo break that barrier in the same season.
But Spurrier knows how hard it would be to justify that decision to the thousands of garnet-and-black fans in the Death Valley stands who wait for this result all year long.
NFL teams may use backups after clinching a playoff spot, Spurrier said, but he'll go full out against Clemson every year, no matter what's at stake later on.
''One school, one group of fans, and one team is going to have bragging rites for the entire year,'' he said. ''There's a lot on the line every year. The same thing is true this year.''