Most of the conversation early this week barely sideswiped strategy and relative strengths of one or the other, which seemed odd four days before a Clemson-South Carolina football game.
After he presented his nickel tour of the Gamecocks’ roster, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney spent nearly an hour Tuesday responding to questions about his team, career path and empathy for Carolina interim coach Shawn Elliott.
Even when asked about facing a potentially hostile crowd Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium, he discussed the difficulty of winning on the road – anywhere – and his team’s resourcefulness away from home.
No questions about sending out a Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback against a defense allowing 422 yards a game or his concerns about his team’s high wire act with 21 turnovers.
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On some level, this game seems a like a nuisance for the nation’s No. 1 team because of the big stakes ahead, the ACC Championship Game and a potential seat in the College Football Playoff.
Still, while the betting line might be at an historic high with Clemson favored by as many as 18, nobody in the West End Zone was taking for granted a team whose season degenerated after the head coach resigned midway through the schedule.
There’s a reason that, after Clemson dropped “interim” from his title after the 2008 season, one of Swinney’s five perennial goals was beating South Carolina. For five consecutive seasons that didn’t happen, which was why nobody snickered after learning The Citadel heaped further indignity on South Carolina, and he didn’t bite when asked if the game might mean more to a desperate team.
“This game isn’t any more important to them than it is to us, I promise you,” Swinney said. “We’re going to get everybody’s best, and our guys know that. That’s why we don’t get too distracted by the opponent.
“South Carolina is going to play their tails off, I have no question, and so are we.”
One of the marks of this team and it’s somewhat improbable run has been its ability to remain in the moment. Preparing for Wake Forest last week was no different than preparation for Notre Dame or Florida State. Another week as No. 1 in the CFP Top 25 doesn’t seem to stoke the fire anymore.
“All the things we’ve done this year are in the rearview mirror,” Swinney said. “We’ve got a lot of respect for them.”
This game is a rivalry because that’s what been the tradition for 119 years, but it’s importance in the grand scheme diminished once South Carolina left the Atlantic Coast Conference. This year, it’s just another step to a loftier finish much as it was in 1981, when Clemson won a national championship.
Swinney understands fans’ passion for the game, but he laughs at the suggestion that winning this game heals all ills. Coaches don’t survive many – if any – 1-11 seasons, which is why he doesn’t flinch at reports that LSU might fire Les Miles or Georgia might look for an option other than Mark Richt.
“I don’t need that reminder,” Swinney said, recalling the stark, cold lessons during his years as a player, then coach, at Alabama.
“It’s a big boy business,” he said. “When you’re at a program like Clemson or LSU, that comes with the territory.
“Now we’re at a program where when you win you didn’t win by enough,” he said. “It’s become a beauty pageant.”
Swinney said running back Wayne Gallman and corner Mackensie Alexander should return after a week to heal, a few others are possible but Clemson has been able to absorb the spate of injuries typical through 11 games.
Next week, the Tigers play North Carolina for the ACC title in Charlotte. Indicative of the Gamecocks’ slide is the fact that UNC opened the season with a loss to South Carolina in the same stadium.
“This is one you carry all year long,” Swinney said. “Our guys understand. They get it. Just lose it, and you’ll realize how special it is.”