They will cross paths for 60 minutes Saturday in one of college football’s best rivalries, one on his way in and one, presumably, on his way out, and both a testament to the power of hope.
Three years ago, it was Clemson that needed hope. The Tigers had lost five in a row to South Carolina and had to listen to Steve Spurrier chirp about it on top of that. And then here came Deshaun Watson, the can’t-miss prospect who didn’t. Watson took over the Tigers’ starting quarterback job in 2014, his true freshman season, and Clemson hasn’t lost to South Carolina since. He is a combined 34-for-46 passing for 548 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions and has rushed for 127 yards and another five touchdowns.
Watson is a junior and has not publicly announced his intentions about the upcoming NFL Draft, but he participated in the team’s Senior Day ceremony earlier this season so it doesn’t take a genius to read those tea leaves. Barring a major upset (the Tigers are 23.5-point favorites), Watson will leave Clemson having never lost to South Carolina.
It’s the exact legacy South Carolina fans would hope for their freshman quarterback. Like Watson, Jake Bentley came along at a time when his team desperately needed hope. The Gamecocks were 2-4 when Will Muschamp decided to play Bentley this season rather than redshirt him as the team had originally planned. South Carolina is 4-1 since and last week clinched bowl eligibility.
“Everybody has a lot of confidence in Jake and believes he can make things happen for us and get us Ws on Saturdays,” junior running back David Williams said.
Bentley is 86-of-130 passing for 989 yards, six touchdowns and one interception this season, and he is drawing rave reviews from analysts. Gordon McGuinness, SEC analyst for ProFootballFocus.com, has broken down every game Bentley has played this season.
“He’s been really good throwing the ball down the field,” McGuinness said.
More specifically, PFF’s numbers show that Bentley leads the SEC in adjusted completion percentage on throws that travel more than 20 yards in the air (13-for-23 with one drop) and in adjusted completion percentage on passes while under pressure (19-of-34 with four throwaways and two drops).
It’s fair, of course, to point out that Bentley’s only loss (and the only game he didn’t get a winning grade in PFF’s numbers) was the Florida game on the road. Saturday’s trip to Death Valley will the second road trip of his career. It’s also worth noting that the four teams the Gamecocks have beaten in the second half of the season are 15-29. Clemson is 10-1 and ranked No. 4 in the country.
“As much as anything we have to play well around him,” Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp said. “I know he will prepare the right way to play well against a very good football team. We have to protect him. We have to get something going in the run game. Clemson’s got a really good defense just like Florida.”
The Gamecocks, at least, have hope.
“Jake handles himself very well,” South Carolina senior offensive lineman Mason Zandi said. “I think Jake will be mentally ready on his own because that’s the maturity level that he has.”