CLEMSON — It’s the week Clemson and South Carolina fans have waited for all year. And it’s never been this big – or this testy.
The 12th-ranked Tigers (10-1) and 13th-ranked Gamecocks (9-2) play Saturday at Death Valley – if South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier remembers where the stadium is.
Spurrier and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney have spent the past year trading jabs since the Gamecocks won their third straight in the rivalry, 34-13 last seasons.
A few days later, Swinney went on a rant that should live for the ages in rivalry lore. He ripped South Carolina’s pedigree, nickname and football history against Clemson, all over a comment attributed to Spurrier on social media the head ball coach never said.
“Tweet that,” Swinney concluded last December.
Spurrier has questioned Swinney’s smarts, poked fun at Death Valley’s location – “Is there another one?” Spurrier quipped before LSU week – and said at an on-campus celebration last month for injured tailback Marcus Lattimore that “usually when that coach up there talks about South Carolina, it’s a bunch of garbage.”
And that was before praising Swinney’s kind words over losing Lattimore.
“They don’t like us very much and we don’t care for them,” said Lattimore’s replacement in the Gamecock backfield, Kenny Miles.
All the coaching back-and-forth may have overshadowed the best combined seasons in rivalry history. The Tigers won their seventh straight game and 13th in a row at home Saturday with a 62-48 victory over North Carolina State. Clemson’s players were awarded a trophy afterward as co-champs of the ACC Atlantic Division, although Florida State will play in the title game because of its win over the Tigers two months ago.
South Carolina wrapped up its third straight win with a 24-7 victory over FCS opponent Wofford.
It’s the first time the schools have both been in the top 15 when they’ve played, although both dropped a spot in the latest rankings. Plus, the stakes are sky high. A win by Clemson could bring an at-large BCS berth to the Sugar Bowl. South Carolina’s seeking a second straight 10-win season for the first time.
“I don’t know how you can add any more juice to this game,” Swinney said.
Spurrier has a chance for some additional history: A fourth straight win over Clemson, something that’s happened just once before (1951-54) in a series that began in 1896.
It’s a streak Tigers players are weary of dealing with.
Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd says for all and the team have accomplished with three divisional trophies and last year’s Atlantic Coast Conference title, it’s a little hollow without defeating the Gamecocks.
“I think it’s a must-win situation for us,” he said. “It’s one of those deals where it has to happen.”
You could tell South Carolina’s run had worn on Swinney’s nerves last fall when he was asked after a Tigers practice about a Twitter comment attributed to Spurrier – but actually said by radio play-by-play man Todd Ellis – that while South Carolina wasn’t among the SEC’s elite teams like Alabama or LSU, “we ain’t Clemson either.”
Swinney called the comment childish and without merit. He pointed out the Tigers superior record overall and in the series. “They’re never going to be Clemson, to be honest with you. No three-game win-streak is going to change that,” the coach said.
Swinney wasn’t finished, mocking nicknames and saying there’s a different, higher standard to Clemson football than at South Carolina.
“He’s exactly right. They ain’t Alabama. They ain’t LSU. And they’re certainly not Clemson. That’s why Carolina is in Chapel Hill and USC is in California,” he continued. “The university in this state, always has been, always will be – Clemson. It’s right here in Clemson, South Carolina. Print that. Tweet that. Whatever.”
Spurrier wasn’t angry. “Smart people don’t believe everything they read, and they don’t believe hearsay,” he said. “I guess Dabo believed it.”
Spurrier’s had a long history of tweaking rivals. His comments needling Tennessee (“You can’t spell Citrus without UT”) and Florida State (“Free Shoes University”) while coach at Florida are part of college football legend.
Spurrier is 4-3 in the rivalry, tied for second-most Clemson wins by a South Carolina coach with Paul Dietzel. Spurrier trails Rex Enright’s eight series wins in 15 years with the Gamecocks. Spurrier tied Enright’s career program victories record at 64 last week and gets first crack at the school record at Death Valley.
Spurrier’s most recent jab on the Tigers came at the Lattimore ceremony, where teammates, coaches, officials and fans came together two days after Lattimore’s injury – and on his 21st birthday – to wish him well when Spurrier took a roundabout way to thank Swinney.
Clemson’s coach took it as a compliment. “It’s like me telling my wife, ‘You don’t look as fat in this dress,’ ” he said.
One thing players on both sides agree on: Little pre-game chatter matters come kickoff. “Regardless of what their coach says, what our coach says, it’s going to be a heated game,” Miles said.