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Gamecocks closing gap with Clemson

5/4/2012

Five wins in 21 years. Two in 10. One in six. As of 2008, the South Carolina Gamecocks weren't exactly holding up their end of the rivalry with the Clemson Tigers.

Fierce and frenzied as the series has historically been -- look no further than the ugly brawl in 2004 that cost both schools bowl bids -- a rivalry needs some semblance of balance in the overall record. The Gamecocks are doing their best in that regard, having won three in a row to cut its deficit to 65-40-4.

Three consecutive victories in a rivalry might not seem all that significant on the surface, but it's meaningful when South Carolina had not done so since 1968-70. It had not even won back-to-back games against the Tigers since then, difficult as that is to believe.

It's not just that the Gamecocks has won; they have been fully dominant in those victories, averaging 32.3 points a game while Clemson has 37 total points in the past three meetings.

What the South Carolina win streak has done is rejuvenate the rivalry. The Carolina side is jubilant. The Clemson side is furious. The power of those emotions is central to any good, legitimate rivalry.

So what has happened to allow the Gamecocks to close the gap in the series?

Recruiting

The recent shift starts with the simple fact that South Carolina has better players than it has had, maybe, at any point in the program's history.

Credit Steve Spurrier and his staff for that. That's why the Gamecocks played in their first SEC championship game two seasons ago and why they won a school-record 11 games, including a Capital One Bowl victory against Nebraska, last season.

Spurrier says the program isn't quite where he wants it, but he notes the talent level is as high as it has been since he took over in 2005. Just look at the April draft, which included two Gamecocks defenders (Stephon Gilmore and Melvin Ingram) in the first 18 picks. That had happened only one other time, in 1981, well before any of the current players were alive.

Running back Marcus Lattimore, coming back from a torn ACL, could be a first-rounder next year -- he went 23rd overall in Todd McShay's early 2013 mock draft. Still-learning defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, a sophomore, has No. 1 overall potential in 2014.

The recruiting front seemed to change when Ellis Johnson -- a native of Winnsboro, S.C., about a half-hour north of Columbia -- returned to become the Gamecocks' defensive coordinator. The production off the field, landing in-state talent such as Gilmore and Clowney, matched the on-field production. And that's saying something, considering South Carolina's defense was dominant in 2011 (fourth in the nation in yards per play allowed, second in passing efficiency defense).

Johnson is now the head coach of the Southern Miss Golden Eagles, and Lorenzo Ward, previously the secondary coach, takes over the defense. Winning the way the Gamecocks have could help extend the recruiting success, so long as Spurrier is sticking around; at 67, he is showing no signs of slowing down.

Coaching change

Clemson fans' primary complaint with Tommy Bowden was that he couldn't deliver an ACC title. They delighted in his mastery of the Gamecocks, even after Spurrier arrived in 2005, but they decided the conference title chase was more important than his 7-2 record against Carolina when they turned on him by his ouster in 2008.

Be careful what you wish for. Dabo Swinney has had the Tigers in the ACC championship game twice in three years as the full-time head coach, including last year's victory and Orange Bowl appearance, but he is 0-3 since he beat the Gamecocks in 2008 as the interim coach.

Swinney is from Alabama and played receiver for the Tide, so he has a good understanding of what big-time rivalries are all about. He has a passion for Clemson and seems to grasp the gravity of the South Carolina series. It's not as if he isn't putting enough energy into the game, which is something Gamecocks fans had, at one point, accused Spurrier of doing.

If Swinney keeps losing to the Gamecocks, though, some in orange might be wishing for a return to the way things were under Bowden. At least they didn't have to hear it from Carolina friends and family back then.

Turnovers

This is a bit of a no-brainer, especially in the three recent lopsided games, but turnovers have been an instrumental part of the series shift.

Clemson has seven giveaways to South Carolina's two in the past three games, and the Gamecocks haven't had a turnover in the series since 2009. (South Carolina has steadily improved in turnover margin over the past three seasons, while Clemson has gone in the opposite direction.)

Consistent quarterback play has been an odd bugaboo in Spurrier's South Carolina tenure, but he has at least seen it recently in the series. With as many jokes that have ended with Stephen Garcia's name, the exiled QB could beat the Tigers. In his two victories as a starter, he threw for five touchdowns, one interception and 353 yards.

After Garcia was booted from the team, Connor Shaw was even sharper last season. He accounted for 317 total yards and four total touchdowns, asserting complete control over the Clemson defense, which was hapless against running quarterbacks by the end of the season. Shaw is just a junior. If he finds a way to defeat Clemson two more times, he would join Tommy Suggs (1968-70) as the only Gamecocks quarterbacks to go 3-0 against the Tigers.

The Gamecocks' win streak, plus some tough talk from Swinney after last season's game -- which possibly came in response to South Carolina play-by-play announcer and all-time passing leader Todd Ellis' "We might not be LSU or Alabama, but we ain't Clemson" comment -- will make for an intriguing 2012 edition of the matchup.

"It's not the first time they have won three in a row, and it will not be the last time," Swinney told reporters two days before the ACC title game. "It might be 50 more years, but it will probably happen again. ... They are not Clemson and never will be."

That will get a rivalry going, won't it?

So will high stakes. In Clemson's case, one could make the argument that the South Carolina game is the toughest on its 2012 schedule (a Week 4 road trip to play Florida State might get some votes too). For the Gamecocks, having to travel to Memorial Stadium to cap a seven-game stretch that includes Georgia, LSU and Arkansas doesn't sound like much fun either.

Imagine if in the coming years both teams are in contention for BCS at-large berths -- or spots in the on-the-horizon playoff. Clemson is still looking for its first BCS victory. South Carolina just wants to get to a BCS game. What if one school could knock the other out? That could take this rivalry to another level.