Rivalry games are tough to call most years, anyway.
But throw in a midseason coaching change and an interim coach possibly playing for his job and who knows what you’ll see?
The odds-makers installed Clemson as a 1-point favorite when the betting lines opened this week. And though some fans in Columbia were a little surprised to see the Gamecocks as an underdog, Vegas must have been looking at this series’ recent history.
The last three Palmetto Bowls have been decided by four points or fewer, with the margin decreasing each year: 4 points in 2005 (Clemson 13-9), 3 points in ’06 (USC 31-28) and 2 points last year (Clemson 23-21).
A couple of the key storylines Saturday at Death Valley:
-How will the Gamecocks’ defense bounce back after a 50-point loss at Florida against a Clemson offense that has nearly as much speed as the Gators?
USC’s defense played well early against the Gators, then seemed to get the starch taken out of its shirt when the Gamecocks’ offense/special teams handed Florida three turnovers and a 21-0 lead.
And say what you will about Dabo Swinney’s hokey musings (stressed spelled backward is desserts, et al), at least Dabo has had the good sense to get the ball in the hands of the Tigers’ best playmakers.
C.J. Spiller is averaging 18 touches (and 9 yards a touch) over the past four games. The junior has 12 plays of 50 yards or longer, most in school history, and something tells me he might add to that total Saturday on a kickoff return.
But USC’s defense is not going to make a habit of giving up 500-plus yards. Look for the Goon Squad to get to Cullen Harper a few times and keep USC in the game.
-So then the question becomes, can Steve Spurrier and Son to find enough offense for the Gamecocks to win?
For all the talk this week about Chris Smelley’s first start vs. the Tigers, Stephen Garcia’s stomach bug and so on, there was little or no mention of the Gamecocks’ offensive line.
No doubt, the key to USC’s success will be Smelley making smart decisions and not throwing off his back foot into the waiting arms of Clemson defenders. But it’s easier to make those decisions and avoid those throws when there are no 300-pound-plus defensive linemen barreling toward you.
The Tigers are without their top pass-rusher, but were not exactly reminding anyone of the Jets’ famed New York Sack Exchange even when Ricky Sapp was in the lineup.
Getting Jamon Meredith back at guard gives the Gamecocks their best combination up front, and it’s this unit that will decide things Saturday.
If the line gives Smelley time to throw and creates enough push that USC can at least have some sort of a running game (the latter is definitely the bigger ‘if’), the Gamecocks get their eighth win.
If Smelley is pressured into a couple, three turnovers, USC will have to try to back into the Outback Bowl after losing its last two games.
Prediction: The Gamecocks stop the Sapp-less Tigers by the skinniest of margins.
USC 24, Clemson 23.