When Steve Spurrier first got to South Carolina in 2005, “Beat Clemson” signs were all over the offices.
He received the same message from fans when he attended booster club meetings.
His response to that importance level in the rivalry has been the opposite.
“I’d rather win them all and lose to Clemson if that was the choice,” he said Sunday. “My belief is you don’t talk about one team the entire year.”
He won’t be able to avoid it this week.
His No. 13 Gamecocks completed a difficult, 24-7 win over Wofford on Saturday while the No. 12 Tigers topped N.C. State in a wild shootout, 62-48.
Now, neither side will have to sidestep questions about the other and both should have no problem turning the page from one game to the next when USC (9-2) visits Clemson (10-1) on Saturday at 7 p.m. on ESPN in one of the biggest showdowns the rivalry has ever seen.
“It’s a rare opportunity for our state to showcase this game,” Tiger coach Dabo Swinney said Sunday.
It’s the second-highest combined rankings the two have ever had when squaring off in the regular-season finale.
A Stanford upset over then-No. 1 Oregon helped the Cardinal leap both the Palmetto State schools, dropping them a spot in the Associated Poll and taking away any chance they could meet as top-10 teams.
But both squads are as nationally relevant as they’ve ever been at the same time.
“It’s a huge game, and maybe one of the biggest games since I’ve been here anyway of our rivalry series,” Spurrier said.
The Gamecocks are trying to earn their fourth consecutive series win for the first time since a run from 1951-54; the Tigers, who opened as a 4-point favorite in Las Vegas, are still hoping for an at-large BCS berth, despite a weekend of upsets, and must win this week to have a chance.
Of course, there are also bragging rights on the line Saturday.
“I know some of our guys have been waiting on this game,” USC receiver Ace Sanders said. “I know the atmosphere at practice is going to be game tempo, everybody’s going to go 100 percent all week.”
As soon as both teams completed their 11th game, players were quickly asked questions about this week’s rivalry and had no problems switching gears to the big game. Film was broken down Sunday. The two squads begin preparations today, mixing in the Thanksgiving holiday with what’s expected to be a lot of work.
“We’ve got to have great preparation,” Swinney said. “This is an outstanding football team we’re getting ready to play. We’ll have to play very well and execute at a high level of consistency for four quarters to win the game.”
Despite a combined 19 wins between the two, USC and Clemson do have plenty to work on.
The Gamecocks didn’t gain 300 yards of offense against the Terriers, who pressured QB Connor Shaw with a three-man rush and sacked him four times.
“Our passing game is a concern,” Spurrier said. “We didn’t protect extremely well at times. We’ll see how we can improve.”
He’s also worried about two of his brightest stars. Shaw reinjured a sprained foot in the first series against Wofford and hobbled through the rest of the game. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney missed the game all together because of a bruised foot and a knee issue. Spurrier said Sunday he expects Shaw to miss a day or two of practice but still play against Clemson; Clownery’s status might not be determined until Wednesday or Thursday.
Swinney praised his Tigers on Sunday for stepping up to the challenge against N.C. State and totaling 754 yards of offense. However, his defense allowed 597 yards, and the special teams play gives him something else to emphasize this week.
“We’re just kind of getting into studying them and breaking them down personnel-wise, but I’ve seen them a couple of times on TV. They’re outstanding in the return game,” Swinney said about USC. “The way we covered (N.C. State on Saturday), that’s a big concern. We’ve got our hands full.”