Gamecocks, Tigers have come a long way on gridiron

I moved to Myrtle Beach in 1995, which at the time was considered a banner year for college football in the Palmetto State.

South Carolina had just won its first bowl game in school history over West Virginia in the Carquest Bowl in Miami, while Clemson suffered a 41-0 pasting at the hands of Syracuse in the Gator Bowl. Not exactly great by Alabama-Auburn standards, but football seemed to be on the upswing in South Carolina.

Sixteen years later both are playing in Florida bowl games again. The Gamecocks thumped Nebraska 30-13 while the ACC champion Tigers were blown out by the Mountaineers in the Orange Bowl, Clemson’s first BCS bowl appearance. With both turning in double-digit win seasons, that’s real progress.

I used to wonder why it was so tough for the Gamecocks and Tigers to succeed. Was it because there were two top school competing for players in a small state? The Iron Bowl power contradicted that argument. It can be done.

Was it coaching , recruiting, the Chicken Curse? For whatever reason, things began to get worse for the two Palmetto State schools before they got better. It’s taken 16 years for them to get to this point, but it was worth the wait.

The Gamecocks wound up going 1-10 under Brad Scott, who had led the to their first bowl win, while Tommy West went 3-8 at Clemson in 1999. Both schools took major steps forward by hiring Lou Holtz to head the Gamecocks and Tommy Bowden to lead the Tigers.

But despite some early signs of success, neither coach could push their team over the hump. After some initial success under Holtz, the Gamecocks maxed out under his guidance. The same happened to Bowden, whose 7-4 seasons just didn’t cut it at Clemson.

South Carolina spared no expense, bringing in Steve Spurrier following his unsuccessful experiment in the NFL. The Ol’ Ball Coach has changed his pass-happy ways at Florida, taking advantage of what his team does best – running the ball and defense – to set the school record for 11 wins in a season.

Clemson found their man hiding in plain sight. Dabo Swinney was an assistant for the Tigers before taking his field promotion and running with it. Clemson won its first ACC title in two decades this season and Swinney was named the national coach of the year.

It’s been a long, tough road for both teams to achieve the greatness they did this season, but that’s what it takes. It all begins with recruiting, and this state used to bleed talent across the borders to bigger schools with better programs.

The first thing Spurrier and Swinney have done is build a fence around the state to keep top talent at home. South Carolina has landed top recruits JaDaveon Clowney, Marcus Lattimore and Stephon Gilmore, while Clemson has made a living by keeping kids from jumping the border.

Both coaches also have been raiding other school’s territory to bring in BCS-caliber talent. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd had offers to home-state schools Virginia and Virginia Tech, not to mention other major programs, but the Tigers were able to win him over.

But the biggest things for both programs has been a no-excuses approach to coaching. Spurrier has refused to let his players revel in their minor accomplishments – such as playing close games against top teams – in order to keep them focused on major accomplishments. That’s what it takes.

The best may be yet to come with both teams welcoming back top players next year. The regular-season ending game between the Gamecocks and Tigers, which used to be for little more than in-state bragging rights, could have serious BCS implications next season.

Imagine 11-0 South Carolina vs. 11-0 Clemson, and then calls for a rematch in the BCS championship game just like Alabama and LSU did this season. It’s not as far-fetched as it seems when you consider where the two programs were just 16 years ago.

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