CLEMSON — Clemson’s senior class is small but accomplished.
The Tigers’ 11 seniors have enjoyed a very productive career.
They’ve won or shared three ACC Atlantic Division titles. They’ve won Clemson’s first ACC title since 1991. Their 35 wins are the most by a Clemson class since 1991, and their 23 ACC wins are a program record. They have a pair of 10-win seasons, the first time that’s happened since 1982, and the first 10-win regular season since 1981.
They’ve won in Atlanta. They’ve beaten an ACC team on Thursday night. They’ve pushed the No.12 Tigers (10-1) back into national prominence.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says the group has helped change the program’s total mentality.
“What they’ve been able to do in four years is transform us and make us relevant again,” he said last week. “I remember getting this job and sitting in homes talking about it. Here’s the vision, the plan, what we want to do. They’ve done it.”
One thing they haven’t done? Beaten South Carolina. The Tigers are 0-3 against their arch-rivals, which, naturally, stings.
“This senior group has accomplished a lot of things, a long list of things,” Swinney said. “It’s a long list, but one thing they haven’t gotten done is beating South Carolina. It’s a short list of things they haven’t done, but that’s a biggie for them.”
The Tigers’ seniors get one final shot Saturday night at home. No.13 USC (9-2) visits for what should be a heated home finale. Clemson’s seniors desperately want to leave on a high note.
“There’s a lot at stake,” said senior center Dalton Freeman. “Not only because it’s our last game or a rivalry game, but we’ve done a ton as a senior class to take the lid off this program. We’ve accomplished so many things but one of them has not been beating South Carolina. We need to accomplish that and try to put ourselves in a position to be in a BCS game as well.”
Eight of the 11 seniors hail from inside the state’s borders, which makes this week even more personal.
Freeman grew up in Pelion, 22 miles from Williams-Brice Stadium.
“It’s been awful going home these last three years,” he said. “I’m looking to change that. It’s not been much fun, but they beat us, there’s no way around us. They physically beat us these last three years. That’s what I’m trying to tell our guys. We control a lot of that.”
Senior “Will” linebacker Tig Willard, a Loris native, feels much the same way.
“It’s really crazy,” Willard said. “One of my favorite teachers is a South Carolina fan. She’s always messing with me, reminding me, ‘Three times, three times, three times. It gets up under your skin a little bit.”
Senior safety Rashard Hall is a St. Augustine, Fla., native; he has come to understand the rivalry largely through his teammates’ viewpoint.
“Seeing how much it means to them, how they grew around it, how it hurts when we do lose a game, not just for them but for their families,” he said. “I’ve grown to appreciate it.”
The seniors’ first real taste of Clemson-USC was sweet: C.J. Spiller took 2009’s opening kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown.
It’s been all downhill since: after Spiller’s score, the Gamecocks have outscored Clemson by a collective 97-30.
“It’s been tough,” said Willard. My senior class not being able to beat them has been a little bit difficult, but at the same time we’re not going to look back in the past. That’s done, we can’t change it, so we’ll look to the future.”
In the seniors’ eyes, that future – i.e., this week - looks bright.
Freeman said the Tigers’ roster as a whole is “a more mature group.”
“We’ve got a lot more confidence than we did last year,” he said. “Last year we were kind of hoping and praying things went the right way. This year we’re expecting it. We have leadership and maturity at key positions, whereas last year we were running out of gas at the end. This year I feel like we at least have half a tank. We’re excited. We feel like we could play six, seven more games if we had to.”
Senior tight end Brandon Ford, a Wando native, is equally excited.
“That’ll be a great thing, to go out in the last game in Death Valley and beat your arch-rivals,” he said. “I feel me and the other 11 seniors have got a great opportunity. I feel we can do it. This team is way more focused than what we were last year. It’s going to be a great day for us.
“With the taste we had in our mouth, like the taste we had for N.C. State last week, it’ll show, and I think we’ll turn out to win the game.”
Beating the Gamecocks is one of the last significant pieces of this class’s resume – and one that, in place, fans will remember for a long time.
“It’s something people judge you on,” Freeman said. “As much success as we’ve had, people look at it as being the foundation for our season. We’re excited about the opportunity we have, and obviously it doesn’t make or break our season but it’s very important.”