Q: What is Tajh Boyd’s legacy at Clemson and how much of that will be determined Saturday?
A: He’s set a ton of records, has been a really good ambassador for the school and program, and is a man of the people inside the Clemson community. I will feel bad for him if he doesn’t leave Williams-Brice with a win, because there will undoubtedly be a faction who will deride his career accomplishments as a result of an inability to beat South Carolina.
But, if Clemson is able to win, it will be a masterstroke for him, and his previous struggles against the Gamecocks will be forgiven. He really became a hero with his unforgettable showing against LSU in last year’s bowl game. And it’s hard to imagine the Tigers winning Saturday without him making big plays and showing similar resilience he demonstrated against LSU.
If Clemson loses — and if Boyd does not play well against them for a third consecutive year as the starter — it will be impossible to look at his career and avoid saying: “Couldn’t beat South Carolina.” That’s just the way it goes with rivalry games like this.
Q: Do you expect Jadeveon Clowney’s offseason comment that Boyd was “scared” of him to provide motivation to Boyd this week?
A: I’m sure it has and will. Boyd can object to the notion that he’s scared of Clowney, but it is a fact that he has not played well in those games and has looked rattled. He’s been sacked 11 times in the two defeats, and last year he was sailing his passes from the beginning.
On a deeper level, maybe Boyd was just a little put out that Clowney chose to put him down in such a public manner. Boyd was really biting his tongue over the summer when reporters asked him to comment on Clowney’s appraisal. I think he’s been very motivated by it.
Q: How has Dabo Swinney handled South Carolina’s winning streak in terms of addressing it with his fan base and his team?
A: He’s heard about it quite a bit as the winning streak has continued. Used to be, Clemson fans viewed wins over South Carolina with more relief than anything. That was in the days of the Tigers’ domination of the rivalry — they went 24-8-1 from 1976 to 2008, and had won 10 of 12 before the Gamecocks started the current trend. South Carolina has flipped that to the point that it seems the Gamecocks and their fans expect to win this game, and that hurts longtime Clemson faithful who remember what it was like to have the Gamecocks under their thumbs.
Q: Will the Tigers have any hangover from the Florida State game, their last “big” game?
A: I don’t know if it’s a hangover as much as a desire to avoid getting shellacked like that again on the national stage. Florida State might be the best team in the country, so no shame in losing to the Seminoles. But the Tigers fell apart in losing by 37. Boyd looked spooked the entire game, and maybe the pressure of the Heisman and the battle with Winston got to him. He made some really bad mistakes in that game, running the wrong way on his lost fumble (returned for a touchdown) and tossing two picks in the red zone when Clemson still had a shot. I’m sure he’s motivated to atone for that nightmare.
Q: What were the breakdowns that allowed the Seminoles to win that game so convincingly, and have they been addressed?
A: Really, the Seminoles’ ability to exploit the holes in Clemson’s pass coverage and convert third-and-long reminded me of last year’s game against South Carolina. I’d assume Spurrier will enter this game trying to take advantage of Clemson’s safeties while also forcing their linebackers to cover.
Q: What’s the mood of the Clemson fan base given that, one on hand, the Tigers are back to national prominence but, on the other, they are in the historically unprecedented spot of No. 2 in the state?
A: It’s a weird, conflicted feeling for the fan base. They finally won an ACC title. They’re finally stringing together 10-win seasons. And they’ve won big games over LSU, Georgia, Auburn (twice), Florida State and Virginia Tech (three times). But they’re losing to the Gamecocks in a fashion they haven’t since the 1950s.
The fans are sick of losing to South Carolina. Not sick enough to want to run Swinney out of town if it continues — that would be silly given what has been accomplished here otherwise — but sick enough for this season to be viewed with a strong tinge of disappointment if they don’t win Saturday.
Last year’s bowl win over LSU helped soothe the angst and anger after they lost by 10 at home to South Carolina (after entering it favored by a touchdown). If Clemson’s losing streak extends to five in a row for the first time in the history of this rivalry, it’s going to be a long month of December for this fan base.
Q: Who has emerged as the No. 2 offensive option behind Sammy Watkins?
A: Martavis Bryant has been really good of late, giving the offense a much-needed weapon opposite Watkins. One of the big offseason story lines was the emergence of Bryant, who made circus catches left and right during the spring and summer. But it took him a while to translate that to games; he dropped some balls, and his frequent indifference toward blocking didn’t help his case for playing time.
Q: How much better is the Clemson defense than it was a year ago and what’s the biggest reason for the improvement?
A: They are significantly better largely because of the improvement of the defensive line and linebackers. Last year, after losing disruptive guys up front from 2011, the line took its lumps and grew up as the season progressed. They ended the season with a dominant showing against LSU, and they carried it over to this year’s opener when they overwhelmed Georgia’s offensive line for long stretches. MIKE linebacker Stephone Anthony has come a long way. He frequently looked lost last season, but this year he’s playing much faster and more instinctive. He and WILL linebacker Spencer Shuey have been much more physical against the run.
Q: From an Xs and Os standpoint, what is the biggest concern for the Clemson defense?
A: Without question, it’s the two safety positions. From the start this season, Clemson struggled at those spots with Travis Blanks and Robert Smith showing inconsistency in both run support and pass coverage with bad angles, missed assignments and a lack of speed. Blanks is out for the year after blowing out his knee last week against The Citadel, and in steps freshman Jayron Kearse. Kearse is really physical in run support but has been exploited in pass coverage.
Q: From an Xs and Os standpoint, where does the Clemson offense believe it has the biggest advantage?
A: I think they feel really good about their receivers against South Carolina’s secondary. Chad Morris said this week that the Gamecocks show a lot of one-safety looks, and if that holds true Saturday, it opens the door for Clemson to hit big plays downfield. Pass protection will be an absolute must for Clemson.