Morris: USC, Clemson make use of scrimmages to prepare for rivalry game

November 23, 2013 

South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson (17) scores a touchdown during the second half of the Gamecock's game against Coastal Carolina Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia. South Carolina won the game 70-10.

TIM DOMINICK — tdominick@thestate.com

SOUTH CAROLINA AND Clemson went through their respective final scrimmages in preparation for Saturday’s big showdown.

This is the way of college football, at least among the BCS conference programs that now schedule either a patsy or a game against an FCS program leading up to their rivalry games.

“You need a game like this. Usually, you have it early in the season,” Steve Spurrier said following USC’s 70-10 thumping of out-manned FCS opponent Coastal Carolina at Williams-Brice Stadium. “Big SEC schools have a game like this. This is where you run up stats.”

USC certainly did that. The Gamecocks never were threatened. They scored touchdowns on 10 of their 13 possessions, punting once and running out the clock at the end of the half and end of the game. USC rolled up 639 yards of offense and limited Coastal Carolina to 294.

Up the road at Clemson, the Tigers mauled FCS opponent The Citadel 52-6. On 11 possessions, Clemson scored seven touchdowns and one field goal, punted once, fumbled once and ran out the clock at the end of the game. The Tigers finished with 558 yards and held the Citadel to 172.

These were the kinds of non-conference games that used to litter the early season schedules of teams from the power conferences. They were used as glorified scrimmages in the first couple of weeks as preparation for the rigors of conference play.

Not anymore.

It appears the power programs need an extra week — essentially an off week — to prepare for the end-of-season game against a non-conference rival.

Florida State might have unknowingly started this practice. The Seminoles played fellow ACC member Wake Forest a week before facing rival Florida during the 1997, 1998 and 2000 seasons. Bobby Bowden, the Florida State coach at the time, once inadvertently slipped to the media that his team used the week of the Wake Forest game to begin preparation for Florida.

Now Florida State does not take any chances with a conference opponent that could turn out to be formidable. On Saturday, it destroyed lowly Idaho a week ahead of facing rival Florida. Of course, sometimes the scheduling of easy wins can backfire, as it did for Florida on Saturday when the Gators stunningly lost to FCS opponent Georgia Southern.

USC fans used to complain about the Orange Crush part of the Gamecocks late-season schedule. Many seasons, USC would be rolling along until limping to the finish line against Tennessee, Florida and Clemson.

That potential gauntlet has been eliminated. USC faced Tennessee in the season’s seventh game and Florida in the 10th game. This is the fourth consecutive year USC has slipped a game it should win easily onto the schedule the week prior to facing Clemson in the regular-season finale.

Starting with Troy in 2010, The Citadel in 2011 and Wofford in 2012, USC has outscored its pre-Clemson game opponents over the past four seasons by an average score of 51-15.

Other programs, including Clemson, have realized the advantage of moving one of the non-conference games to late in the season. Besides Florida and USC in the SEC, Alabama prepared this week for Auburn by playing Chattanooga, and Auburn scheduled a bye week. Besides FSU in the ACC, North Carolina got ready for Duke by playing Old Dominion and Georgia Tech prepped for Georgia by playing Alabama A&M.

Earlier in the week, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney mentioned that he liked the idea of playing an FCS opponent on the Saturday prior to facing USC. In recent years, the Tigers have faced conference opponent N.C. State with an ACC division championship riding on the outcome.

So much of college football is determined by scheduling. Spurrier admitted after Saturday’s game that if USC winds up winning the SEC East title it will not be because his Gamecocks were necessarily the best team in the division. Rather, he said, USC benefited greatly from a softer schedule than Missouri and Georgia against SEC West opponents.

That conference scheduling is purely luck of the draw. Now it appears that programs have figured out the value of scheduling a late-season non-conference scrimmage before playing against their rival.

Both USC and Clemson looked good in their final scrimmages Saturday, and most importantly, appeared to avoid serious injuries. Now they are prepared for the big showdown.

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