Since The Associated Press poll was established for the 1936 season, South Carolina and Clemson have played each other 73 times. Both teams entered the game with a national ranking only three times.
That number alone speaks volumes to the rivalry’s lack of national significance over the years. It also speaks to the lack of national prominence established by both programs.
Saturday’s game will mark the 45th time since 1936 that neither team carried a national ranking. Yet, despite those eye-popping figures of ineptitude, both programs are on their way to nationally relevancy.
No doubt, Clemson is further along in the process. The Tigers have been challenging for ACC championships for most of the past decade with Tommy Bowden as coach. Bowden never could capture that elusive title, but give him credit for building a solid foundation that will serve the program well for years to come.
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By contrast, in the same 10-year period, USC had a two-year run of high-level success before suffering from the wayward ways of a coach who left the program with NCAA probation. The result is a Steve Spurrier-led program in the fourth season of major rebuilding.
Few, if any, programs have quick turnarounds these days. There are too many programs committed to excellence for one to rise rapidly. There are no short cuts to sustained success anymore, and even the programs that build from the ground up are not guaranteed championships.
Clemson is the best example of that, as interim coach Dabo Swinney said this week.
“Clemson has everything that it needs to win a championship and compete for a championship,” Swinney said. “We’re not going to win them every year. These suckers are hard to come by now. People have this misconception out there that you’re just going to go win a national championship every other year. It just doesn’t happen that way.
“They’ve been playing a long time at Florida with pretty good players and 400 recruits to draw from every year (in Florida), and how many national championships have they won down there? Two? They’ve been playing a long time at Florida State with a lot of great players and how many have they won? Two. Clemson’s won one, and can win it again.”
There are not many schools that have won national championships, period. Since an official national champion was determined beginning with the 1936 season, only 33 programs have claimed a national title. Clemson is one of those 33, having won in 1981.
“If you’re competing for conference championships, you’ll have those opportunities to compete for national championships,” Swinney continued.
That is the defining characteristic of a program that gains national relevancy. It competes annually for conference championships, occasionally winning one and plays in a BCS bowl, something neither Clemson nor USC has done.
Again, both programs are on the right track. To get a better idea of where the programs stand, let’s look at a few specific categories and determine who currently has the edge in each area.
• COACHING: Although USC has proved to be more of a challenge than Spurrier expected, he is moving the program along nicely. Spurrier jumped ahead of himself in saying USC was ready to challenge for an SEC East title in 2007. USC might be ready to challenge Florida and Georgia beginning next season. More likely, it will be 2010 before USC moves into that rarified air. Meanwhile, Clemson is in a bit of transition since Bowden departed. Even if Swinney is retained, there will be a transition from one staff to the next.
• RECRUITING: It appears USC will take advantage of the Clemson coaching change this recruiting season. Normally such a change costs a program at least one year in recruiting. USC has made huge inroads throughout the state.
• FACILITIES: It has been a long process but Clemson’s facilities now are in line with the best in the ACC and SEC. USC is in the beginning stages of a catch-up game that will take as many as five years to gain footing.
• UNIVERSITY SUPPORT: Clemson long ago realized the importance of full backing to a football program. USC has come around to the idea only within the last decade.
• FAN SUPPORT: USC fans are as loyal as any, having to stick it out through decades of mediocrity. The bill has finally come due for long-time USC fans who, until now, have not had to pony up the necessary dollars for a program to compete at the highest level. Clemson fans have been showing that kind of financial support for years.
• TRADITION: Clemson has lived off its 1981 national championship and five ACC titles during the 1980s ever since. As each generation passes through Clemson, that winning tradition gets pushed further and further into the history books. Of course, any winning tradition beats USC’s 1969 ACC title.
• CONFERENCE: Clemson plays in the weaker league, thus has a better chance of cracking into the championship trophy case. By playing in the more prestigious SEC, USC’s emergence as a conference champion will create more of a splash nationally.
In conclusion, Clemson’s quest to gain national prominence has been 10 years in the making. USC’s trip is coming to the conclusion of a fourth season. So Clemson is closer to winning league titles and playing in BCS bowls.
Either way, it is apparent that the day is not far off when both teams are nationally ranked when they play to conclude the regular season. That day will signal the arrival of some national relevancy for both programs.
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