CLEMSON — Steve Spurrier thought people at South Carolina spent too much time focused on Clemson. So the Gamecocks coach needed to change the mindset.
He had to get players and fans to buy into the idea it was not a one-game season. It’s working.
No. 13 South Carolina (9-2) will try for its landmark fourth straight series win over No. 12 Clemson (10-1) at Death Valley on Saturday night.
If the Gamecocks pull off the victory, it would be only the second time its happened in the series – the other was from 1951-54.
“I think we take it less seriously than we used to,” Spurrier said. “I think they overdid it prior to coming here.”
There were signs everywhere, Spurrier recalled, saying ‘Beat Clemson.’ When Spurrier, who replaced Lou Holtz after the 2004 season, took his first spring and summer tour of South Carolina booster groups, he heard from plenty of fans. They said they would be happy winning just one game a year if it were against Clemson.
“I said, ‘My thoughts are the opposite. I’d rather win them all and lose to Clemson if that was the choice,’ ” Spurrier said. “My belief is you don’t talk about one team the entire year. We take it seriously, but we don’t talk about beating Clemson all year long anymore.”
He leaves that to the fans, who have talked about little else since the dominant three-year run started in 2009 with a 34-17 victory. South Carolina won 29-7 at Death Valley a year later, then beat the Tigers 34-13 last season.
Spurrier understands the sentiments – Clemson holds a 65-40-4 edge in the series and were 24-8-1 from 1976 through 2008 – but wants the focus on the Southeastern Conference, where the Gamecocks have also improved in recent years.
South Carolina won its first SEC Eastern Division in 2010 and had back-to-back 6-2 league seasons the past two years. The holistic approach has also helped against Clemson in the season finale, Spurrier said.
He believes playing well in the SEC typically means you can compete with any program in the country.
Linebacker Shaq Wilson said the turnaround started when the Gamecocks adjusted their focus to each opponent and not just the crowd-pleaser at the end of the schedule.
“It’s a rivalry game, it’s big to the state and it’s big on the national stage,” Wilson said. “For me, it’s just another chance to showcase our talent and get a win.”
The stakes are high for both teams.
The Gamecocks are seeking a second consecutive 10-win season, something they’ve never achieved in 119 seasons of football. Clemson is seeking its first 11-victory season since its 12-0 national championship campaign 31 years ago. Plus, the Tigers are still alive for a BCS at-large berth.
It’s just the second time in rivalry history both teams have been ranked inside the top 15 and just sixth time ever the two have been ranked for this game.
And then there’s that nasty losing streak to South Carolina that Clemson fans keep bringing up to Tigers coach Dabo Swinney. He takes issue with the idea his team’s season might be viewed by some as half-full without beating the Gamecocks.
“I think that is a sad way to think about things,” he said. “They have no appreciation for winning or how hard it is to win.”
Still, Swinney is tired as everyone else of South Carolina’s win streak.
“We’d be incredibly disappointed if we lost this game,” Swinney said. “You’re dang right. You live with it all year. Everybody lives with it, coaches, players and fans.”
Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd called South Carolina a “must-win” situation after last Saturday’s 62-48 victory over North Carolina State. Boyd doesn’t want this year’s senior class to finish 0-4 against their rivals.
“That’s not what you want your legacy to be at all. It’s a challenge for us,” he said. “And it’d be a great way to send these seniors out.”
South Carolina’s defense held the Tigers to 153 yards last season, by far the lowest output in offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ two seasons at Clemson. The Tigers have averaged 535 yards and 44 points this season.
“I feel like that’s where the tide’s kind of changed this season,” Boyd said.
It’s the second straight year South Carolina is without star tailback Marcus Lattimore, out with a serious knee injury. Backup Kenny Miles rushed for a career high 127 yards in the Gamecocks 24-7 against Wofford last week.
Gamecocks star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is dealing with a foot injury and has a bruise on his knee. He won’t practice much this week, but is expected to play. Defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles says South Carolina is focused totally on beating the Tigers.
“It’s very important and vital we get this one done,” he said.