Palmetto Bowl winds blowing in South Carolina’s favor

As we look forward to this Saturday night’s grudge-match between the Gamecocks and Tigers, there’s one pressing question on my mind:  Has the bitter in-state rivalry between South Carolina and Clemson finally reached a turning point?

From 1971-2004, Clemson thoroughly dominated the series.  During that span Clemson went 24-9-1 against USC, and the Tigers rung up four separate four-game win streaks over the Gamecocks.  Throw in another three-game win streak by the Tigers during that span, and you have arguably the most lopsided rivalry in major college football.

To boot, many of Clemson’s wins during this run were blowouts at Williams-Brice Stadium – 45-0 in 1989, 38-17 in 1995, 48-21 in 1997 and of course, 63-17 in 2003.  Suffice to say it’s been a tough three-and-a-half decades for Gamecock fans.

But entering this week’s game, the Gamecocks have won the last two meetings with Clemson, both in convincing fashion.  Two years ago USC won 34-17 over the then-ACC Atlantic Division champions at Williams-Brice.  Last year the SEC East champion Gamecocks thumped the Tigers 29-7 at Death Valley.  And now the Gamecocks have earned the rare opportunity to assert themselves as the clear-cut best college football program in the Palmetto State.

Nobody under the age of 40 has ever witnessed three straight Gamecock victories over Clemson.  But that will change this Saturday night if USC can beat Clemson again.  If the Gamecocks can get it done, it’ll be USC’s first three-game win streak versus Clemson since 1970 – a rare opportunity indeed, and one to be savored by the Gamecock Nation.

Steve Spurrier arrived at USC at the start of the 2005 season, and he’s 3-3 against Clemson thus far.  But USC has won three of the last five meetings with Clemson, and the last two beatings the ‘Cocks have given the Tigers force you to wonder if the winds of change have finally blown in this rivalry.

I believe they have.  For years Clemson was the more physical football team, but that distinction now belongs to the Gamecocks.  Every game played by these two teams since 1970 has been won at the line of scrimmage, and I don’t expect any different this Saturday night.  USC’s outstanding defensive line – led by Melvin Ingram, Devin Taylor, Travian Robertson, JaDeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles – will be the difference in the ballgame.

Clemson quarterback Tahj Boyd has had a spectacular season, but like most QBs he’s prone to mistakes when he’s under pressure.  And I expect Boyd will spend much of Saturday night running for his own safety rather than looking downfield for his receivers.  The USC defense will be the best Clemson has faced all year.

Furthermore, Clemson’s defense has been suspect against the run all year, which plays to USC’s strength on offense.  Look for the Gamecocks to control the clock (and keep Boyd and the explosive Sammy Watkins on the sideline) by doing exactly what they’ve done for the past several games  – run the football with Brandon Wilds and Connor Shaw, and mix in a short passing game.  A solid but not spectacular offensive performance combined with another hard-hitting defensive effort will propel USC to victory.

When Carolina and Clemson fans leave Williams-Brice after the game this Saturday night, I expect they’ll feel a cool breeze in the air.  It’s the winds of change.  They’ve finally blown.  This rivalry now belongs to the South Carolina Gamecocks.

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