CLEMSON — It’s finally here. Clemson fans have anticipated this game for 12 months, through all the Dabo Swinney and Steve Spurrier barbs, the ups and downs and the constant smack talk with South Carolina fans they live with and work beside every day.
Saturday night, the Tigers get their shot at the Gamecocks in what will be an electric Memorial Stadium environment. Clemson needs a victory to avoid South Carolina’s longest winning streak in the rivalry since 1951-54, and the Tigers are a four-point favorite over Spurrier’s bunch.
With a win, Clemson will have its first 11-win regular season since the 1981 national title season, and take a huge step towards an at-large BCS bid – possibly in New Orleans’ Sugar Bowl.
Here’s a look at what I’ll be watching on a huge night in Death Valley:
1. Can Clemson protect Tajh Boyd?: A year ago, South Carolina terrorized a beat-up Clemson offensive line, racking up five sacks in a 34-13 win. Clemson had only 153 yards of total offense, by far the low of the Chad Morris era, and Tajh Boyd passed for only 83 yards. An improved, more athletic offensive line and a slimmer Boyd have both paid dividends; Clemson’s sacks allowed are down from a year ago, and Boyd is the Tigers’ second-leading rusher behind Andre Ellington. However, a line led by national defensive player of the year candidate Jadeveon Clowney will provide a gigantic challenge, especially for tackles Brandon Thomas and Gifford Timothy. Boyd has been an excellent deep passer this season, but he has to stay upright to get passes off.
2. Can the Tigers cover kicks?: Last week, N.C. State’s Tobias Palmer riddled Clemson for 277 kick return yards in Clemson’s 62-48 win. The Tigers allow 23.3 yards per kick return, 96th nationally. And South Carolina has a pair of dangerous returners in punt returner Ace Sanders (13.9 yards per return) and kick returner Bruce Ellington (21.9 yards per return). Clemson’s kick coverage must be better; with South Carolina’s stingy defense, Clemson can’t afford to consistently defend poor field position and get in a shootout.
3. Can Clemson contain Connor Shaw?: A year ago, Shaw torched the Tigers’ defense for 317 total yards (107 rushing), continually extending drives with his legs. Clemson’s linebackers looked powerless to stop him. Shaw hasn’t topped 92 rushing yards since, and he comes in nursing a foot injury which could hamper his mobility. The Tigers’ linebackers are deeper and much-improved; middle linebacker Spencer Shuey has solidified the defense since his insertion into the starting lineup last month. Clemson can’t afford to give up a number of big plays on the ground or in the air this week.
4. What will the atmosphere be like?: Clemson fans have openly pined for a night game in Death Valley – the last one was South Carolina’s 29-7 win two years ago – and now they have it. Memorial Stadium’s new sound system, scoreboards and LCD ribbons absolutely pop at night, and I’m expecting nothing short of an electric environment. Clemson has a program-best 13-game home win streak – the last loss was the Gamecocks’ last visit – and with fans given a full day of tailgating to “lube up,” the home-field advantage should be significant.
5. Can Sammy Watkins atone?: Watkins has had an up-and-down sophomore season, for reasons chronicled here and elsewhere. He has 53 receptions for 671 yards and three touchdowns, and even though he had 11 catches for 110 yards and a score last week, Morris criticized his play, noting a key drop. A year ago, Watkins had a huge drop on the game’s second offensive play, missing what would have been a sure touchdown. Morris has said that Watkins will come up big when his team needs him most, and this situation surely qualifies.