It’s hard to find a bigger sports story from this year in the state of South Carolina than the undefeated Clemson football team.
While the Tigers’ final chapter to 2015 has yet to be written, the program is 13-0 for the first time in school history and playing in the College Football Playoff against Oklahoma on Dec. 31.
This chase for perfection has stirred memories of Clemson’s historic 1981 national championship run, and these Tigers are hoping to add their name to the record books with two more victories and a trophy-hoisting moment in early 2016.
There’s another sports story from this year that’s from a completely different end of the spectrum.
What happened in Columbia this fall is worth chronicling because it affects the state’s most important rivalry. This past summer, former South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier talked his team up at SEC Media Days. That’s nothing unusual; every coach spins the positives at those events, and he felt like a program coming off a 7-6 record in 2014, a step back from the three consecutive 11-win seasons, could get back to national prominence sooner rather than later.
A week later, Spurrier called an impromptu meeting with the media that turned into a bizarre rant over something said by a columnist from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. On the surface, it should have had no impact whatsoever on the Gamecocks, but Spurrier used it as a chance to tell everyone that he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon — a contrasting message he was sending last year that dearly cost USC in recruiting.
His belief lasted until Oct. 13, when he walked away from a program he took to heights never experienced before in Columbia. He left a team that was just 2-4 at the time. Interim coach Shawn Elliott was charged with picking up the pieces, and after a few weeks of improved spirit, the Gamecocks limped to a 3-9 finish. When stability met instability on Nov. 28, the Gamecocks were a tough out for Clemson, but their year ended without a bowl for the first time since 2007 and the search for Spurrier’s replacement began.
That turned out to be an entirely different kind of sports story. Athletic director Ray Tanner had his sights set on Houston’s Tom Herman and Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. Herman said no thanks and stayed in the Lone Star State while Smart took his talents to Athens, Georgia, to replace Mark Richt.
Despite being one of the first teams to have an opening, South Carolina hired former Florida coach Will Muschamp after all the other major schools filled their positions. Tanner’s decision wasn’t met with pats on the back from many in the national media, and Muschamp has a lot to prove after his failures with the Gators.
That brings us full circle to Clemson, the biggest heavyweight in this state now. Muschamp believes he can recruit talented players to this program again — and is working very hard right now at trying to do so. Recruiting, which Spurrier admitted he basically punted on the last couple years, is also Clemson’s forte and greatest strength right now.
Muschamp wants to go toe-to-toe with the Tigers and SEC powers on the prospect trail, but can he? Dabo Swinney is on top of the world right now. Clemson is getting in doors of 5-star recruits it probably couldn’t have six months ago and flipping them.
And how will the rivalry change now that Muschamp is in charge? Spurrier downplayed the annual showdown with Clemson, taking down pictures and reminders. The Tigers, meanwhile, posted a running countdown clock to the big game in their facility.
It worked for Spurrier, who went 6-4 against Clemson. He won five consecutive games in the series from 2009-13, when Swinney couldn’t figure out how to beat his nemesis during the greatest run in USC history.
Muschamp didn’t have much to say about Clemson in his introductory press conference, instead focusing on his own program. Maybe that’s because he realizes the work ahead of him — and that Clemson is too big a beast to slay right away. Regardless, with the Gamecocks sitting at home for the holidays and the Tigers playing for a national title, it’ll take a lot of events to change the course of this rivalry in 2016.
That’s because in 2015, Spurrier put coal in his fan base’s stocking; Swinney, meanwhile, left a shiny new bicycle under the tree for his followers.