It’s Clemson-Carolina week, and it has nothing to do with ‘want to.’
“If you live in this state and you don’t win this game, it’s something you hear about all year long,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney during his Sunday evening teleconference. “We want to win, and South Carolina does, too. It’s not about wanting to win – it’s about playing good football.”
For the past four seasons, Swinney says it’s pretty obvious that the Gamecock have played the season-ending classic better than the Tigers.
“They’ve been the better team,” Swinney said. “They’ve outplayed us and they’ve outcoached us. We haven’t played to our full potential. I thought we’d win last year – I had no doubt we’d win last year. But we didn’t play well enough to win.
“Our goal this week is to have a good week of practice and preparation, go play four quarters and try to win the game.”
For the first time ever, the rivals will meet as top-10 teams – with 10-1 Clemson ranked as high as No. 4 and the 9-2 Gamecocks as high as No. 9. While the lofty rankings may not make the outcome any more important to the coaches, players and die-hard fans on either side, it brings stature to the rivalry and national attention to the two programs, Swinney said.
“This rivalry, to me, is right up there now as big as any in the country,” said Swinney. “I think that’s because of the consistency the two programs have shown over the past few years. This is a game with BCS implications, and there aren’t that many out there that bring that to the table.”
The Tigers will play this week without two key players who were injured during the game against The Citadel on Saturday. Sophomore starting safety Travis Blanks suffered what is almost certainly a torn ACL, while sophomore reserve running back Zac Brooks reinjured his shoulder and will also require surgery. Swinney said he expects to find out on Monday whether there’s any chance Brooks can return for the bowl game.
The loss of Brooks leaves the Tigers with just two healthy running backs – starter Rod McDowell and backup D.J. Howard. The Tigers’ fourth back, C.J. Davidson, sat out his second straight game since suffering an MCL injury against Virginia.
The Tigers started the season with just two experienced safeties, and they’ll be back in the same situation for the South Carolina game.
Starting strong safety Robert Smith has the versatility to play either position, and first-year freshman Jayron Kearse – who’s been groomed all season as the Tigers’ third safety – will start at Blanks’ spot. Jadar Johnson, another first-year freshman, has been working behind Smith and will see backup action against the Gamecocks, as will Taylor Watson and Ronald Geohaghan.
“This is why you try to create depth as you go through the year,” Swinney said. “Jayron has gained a lot of experience, he’s more comfortable, and he’s made some big plays. With him, we had the luxury of having three, and then were bringing along a fourth. Now we’re down to two guys again – one a veteran and the other a rookie.”
Swinney said he was pleased with the way the Tigers took care of business in their 52-6 rout of The Citadel on Saturday.
“I’m excited about how we played,” he said. “We had a lot of good individual performances, and overall it was just a great day for us. Now everybody’s excited about game number 12, and trying to go play our best game of the season. That’s all that matters.”