CLEMSON — This week, Dabo Swinney was asked a question a generous portion of his fan base is surely thinking right now.
Would this season be a failure if Clemson doesn’t beat South Carolina?
“I think that’s a sad way to think about things,” the Tigers’ fourth-year head coach replied. “People who say that have no appreciation for winning, how hard it is to win. It’s that simple. It’s hard to win 10 games. Hard to do. People who say that don’t get it. They don’t understand.”
Swinney has accomplished plenty in his four years as the Tigers’ full-time head coach. He’s won or shared three ACC Atlantic Division titles, won the program’s first ACC title since 1991 and authored back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time since 1991.
But he hasn’t beaten the Gamecocks since the 2008 victory that sealed his ascension from interim into the full-time role, losing three games by a combined score of 97-37.
He’ll have his best chance to change that Saturday. No.12 Clemson (10-1) is a four-point favorite over the No.13 Gamecocks (9-2), who visit for a 7:15 p.m. game televised nationally by ESPN.
With a victory, Clemson would take a huge step towards its second consecutive BCS bid and shake the downstate demons that have plagued the last four years.
“At the end of the day, they get to talk about it,” said senior tight end Brandon Ford. “We can’t do nothing until Saturday to change it. I’ll be ready to play Saturday along with my teammates, and I’m pretty sure everyone will be focused and ready to go.”
This figures to be one of the rivalry’s most nationally prominent games. The teams have combined for more wins than any other game in rivalry history, and they’re both ranked in the top 15 for the first time since 1987, when No.12 South Carolina upset the No.8 Tigers 20-7.
It has come a long way from 1998, when 2-8 Clemson beat 1-10 South Carolina 28-19; both head coaches, Clemson’s Tommy West and South Carolina’s Brad Scott were fired. Scott spent 12 years as a Clemson assistant and now serves as one of Swinney’s administrative assistants.
“Will I be incredibly disappointed if we don’t win this game? Dang right,” Swinney said. “Not only is it the biggest game of the year but it’s more special. We’ve got to live with it all year. It’s state pride. Everyone lives with it. Coaches, players, fans. If you lose this game, you have to deal with that.
“To say if we lost all these games, went 0-11 and won this game, you’d say we had a great year? I doubt it. I doubt any person would sign up on that. Nobody’s happy unless you win them all. That’s our objective every year, to win them all, to be the best we can be.”
A year ago, Clemson limped in with losses in two of its last three games, including a 34-13 whipping at N.C. State’s hands. The Tigers enter riding a six-game win streak following their only loss of the season, 49-37 at Atlantic champ Florida State.
“We just didn’t play good,” said junior quarterback Tajh Boyd of 2011.
2012’s offensive numbers are improved across-the-board: Clemson is in the top nine nationally in scoring offense, total offense and passing offense, averaging 44.6 points and 535.6 yards per game.
“We’re a better team than we were last year,” Swinney said. “I don’t think there’s any question about that. We’re a smarter team.”
In Swinney’s eyes, that starts with Boyd, who has accounted for an ACC-record 41 touchdowns this season (33 passing, eight rushing). Boyd’s 172.7 pass efficiency ranks second nationally behind Georgia’s Aaron Murray, and after shedding 20 pounds, he has rushed for 466 yards, second-best on the Tigers’ roster.
“When you have a quarterback who really understands it, that’s in year two of his development, you should be better,” Swinney said. “… I don’t think there’s any doubt Tajh Boyd is the difference in this team. He’s a much better quarterback than he was at this time last year. He was a good player last year, but he wasn’t a great quarterback. He’s a much better quarterback. That’s one of the main reasons we’re 10-1.”
Protecting Boyd against South Carolina’s vicious defensive line will be crucial. The line is led by sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, a Bednarik, Lombardi and Nagurski finalist who has 8.5 sacks this season. The Gamecocks lead the SEC in sacks.
Anytime we play against one of the nation’s top defenses, we’re trying to prove what we can be. We want to be the most explosive offense in the country,” Boyd said. “Obviously, they have one of the best defenses in the country. So something’s got to give.
“When you have an opportunity to make plays you have to make them. You can’t leave any room for error. The game can go either way.”
It’ll be a pressure-filled night, but also a chance for the Tigers to earn some national respect. That’s just what they want.
“I think that’s what we thrive off,” Boyd said. “We’re excited about it, feel like we have a really good team as well. We just have to go out there and perform, lay it on the line.”