In this corner stands South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier. In the other corner stands Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney.
The annual game was played in November, but the battle never ends between these two rivals. Their ongoing war of words has escalated again at the end of bowl season.
After USC’s 34-24 win against Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl, Spurrier said, “These two Capital One Bowls in a row are pretty nice. But that state championship ain’t bad, either.” That was a reference to the Gamecocks’ 31-17 victory, the fifth in a row against Clemson, in the regular season.
Swinney responded after his team knocked off Ohio State 40-35 in the Orange Bowl: “We’re the first team from the state of South Carolina to ever win a BCS game.” It was a reference to USC’s inability to make it to a Bowl Championship Series game, which Spurrier later attributed to the rule that limits a conference to two teams, a factor that works against a top-heavy SEC.
Spurrier also noted that USC (11-2) beat six winning bowl teams this season, including a pair of BCS bowl winners, while Clemson (11-2) defeated one.
And so it goes — on and on.
“I think it’s hilarious. I like the way that neither side is giving any ground,” said Phil Kornblut, who covers both programs for the S.C. Radio Network and hosts a nightly call-in show. “I don’t think there’s any other state in the country right now where we’ve got this sort of thing going between instate head coaches. I don’t think (Auburn’s Gus) Malzahn and (Alabama’s Nick) Saban are exchanging any shots. I think it’s kind of neat. It’s good fun.”
While the Tigers have won 65 of the 111 meetings dating to 1896, the Gamecocks have won the past five by an average score of 31-14.
The verbal jabs between the coaches are once again being echoed by fans of both schools on radio call-in shows and Internet message boards
But the ultimate arbiter of which team had the best season came down early Tuesday, with the final Associated Press Top 25 poll, comprised of votes by media members, and the final USA Today Top 25 poll, comprised of coaches’ votes.
The Gamecocks had a school-best No. 4 ranking in both polls, while the Tigers were ranked No. 7 by the coaches and No. 8 by the media.
Jimmy Burch, who covers college football for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, views the feud between Spurrier and Swinney as “entertaining from a distance,” while noting that Spurrier also used to get under the skin of former Texas coach Mack Brown when the two were coaching at Duke and North Carolina, respectively.
His final AP ballot placed USC at No. 5 and Clemson at No. 6.
“If you have a head-to-head result, particularly late in the year like you have in this instance, it carries a lot of weight,” Burch said. “If they had played in September, it wouldn’t mean nearly as much. That was the overriding tiebreaker for me.”
Seth Emerson, who covers college football for the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph, also ranked USC one spot ahead of Clemson but at No. 9 and No. 10 in his poll. He said the large number of two-loss teams made sorting out the rankings after No. 1 Florida State, No. 2 Auburn and No. 3 Michigan State a jumble.
“Their bodies of work were pretty similar, but ultimately I went with South Carolina because head-to-head kind of trumped it,” Emerson said. “If somebody out there is going to put Clemson ahead of South Carolina, I think it’s defensible. From No. 4 to No. 10, you could have put them in any order and debated it. Reasonable people can disagree.”
But fans at the two schools don’t have to be reasonable when it comes to crowing about the achievements of their teams. Clemson fans see a team that defeated Georgia — which South Carolina did not do — and Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. South Carolina fans see a team that defeated UCF, Missouri and Clemson — all teams in the final AP Top 10 — as well as a bowl-game winner.
On the negative side, Clemson was crushed by Florida State, while the Gamecocks suffered a defeat to a Tennessee team with a losing record.
Mark Keels, a 1983 USC graduate, knows that Spurrier is doing something that he has done his entire coaching career. He calls Spurrier the kind of guy that fans love when he’s on their side but can’t stand when he’s on the other side.
“I don’t think he actually has a hatred for Clemson. I think he does it just to get the rivalry stronger and get people more involved and keep the excitement going,” Keels said. “He throws a little bit of something out for fun like he always used to do at Florida when he was talking about Tennessee. Because we have the upper hand lately, that gets the Clemson people all riled up. Dabo may or may not see the fun in that, and he takes it seriously.”
Joel Atkinson, a 1977 Clemson graduate, does not like the way that Spurrier picks at rival teams when he’s winning. He believes it can lead to unnecessary vitriol among the fan bases.
“I see Dabo as someone who’s honestly trying to stand up for his program as best he can. If he needs to jab back, he’s jabbing back,” Atkinson said. “He’s not going to sit there and take it. He feels he has to respond. I wish he wouldn’t feel that he has to respond. I wish he would be the bigger man and be quiet and let Spurrier do all the silly talking.”
Kornblut believes that Spurrier definitely holds bragging rights over Swinney despite the strength of both programs in recent seasons.
“As long as South Carolina is beating Clemson and Spurrier is beating Swinney, logic would tell you that Spurrier carries a stronger argument because he has won five games in a row,” Kornblut said. “Head-to-head is the ultimate measuring point. You can talk conferences all you want, you can talk bowl games all you want, but the bottom line is Spurrier has won five games in a row. That’s not arguable until Dabo beats him again and changes the direction of the rivalry.”
Lost in the boasts of the coaches is the fact that both programs finished in the Top 10 in the same season for the first time in their long histories. Kornblut calls that feat the real distinction for this small but football-crazy state.
“All those years, it was, like, ‘Who cares?’ And now not only do we care instate, but people outside the state are caring and noticing and writing about it and talking about it,” Kornblut said. “I see no reason why it won’t continue.”
That also means Spurrier and Swinney might keep the verbal sparring going, and the fans will fall right into line behind them.
“They’re going to stand by their man, as Tammy Wynette would say, and believe their guy is the smarter guy and the wittier guy,” Kornblut said. “As long as the coaches continue to stir it up, the argument will continue.”