Larry Williams of TigerIllustrated.com took time to answer a few questions heading into Saturday’s big game.
1. What's the feeling on if Deshaun Watson will play and how effective he can be if he does?
Williams: Well that's the big question this week, and I think it will remain a question right up until game time.
The big issue is lateral movement because Watson's game is built on evading and creating with his legs. If he were not a mobile quarterback I think he'd be a very good pocket passer, and that's something maybe a lot of people don't realize with him -- he's a pretty darned polished thrower too. That said, if he can't be a factor with his legs I'm not sure it's just a matter of "throw him out there and let him make throws from the pocket." At the very least he has to be able to protect himself.
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My guess is he plays. But I honestly have no idea whether he can be effective with his legs. I have my doubts about that.
2. If Watson can't play, where do the Tigers turn on offense?
Williams: They'll turn to the guy who began the season as the starter in Athens. And the fact that the first half of that game featured the last instance of Cole Stoudt playing at a high level is why Clemson fans are so freaked out at the thought of No. 18 running the show for most or all of the game Saturday.
At some point along the way, Stoudt lost his confidence. He suffered a left (non-throwing) shoulder injury Oct. 4 against N.C. State, and ever since he's been in noticeable pain in every game he's played. He probably shouldn't have played against Louisville when Watson suffered the hand/finger injury. And there were times in the Nov. 6 game at Wake Forest when the coaches thought he wouldn't make it and they'd have to go with walk-on Nick Schuessler. Stoudt has persevered and pushed through a lot of pain, and he certainly didn't have to stick around after the Florida State game when Watson become The Guy. He deserves credit for all that. But he's also made a large number of really bad decisions, and he's quite lucky that the two pick-6s he tossed against Georgia Tech were his only ones this season. That number could've easily been four or five.
I thought Stoudt looked better last week against Georgia State. But the pressing question about him, assuming he plays significantly Saturday, is what happens if this game is close throughout and he has to avoid the poor decisions he's been making for most of the season?
Given South Carolina's problems against Wildcat stuff this season, I'd be shocked if Clemson didn't incorporate that look in this game. Artavis Scott seems the most likely candidate for that role, assuming the Tigers go that route.
3. What's the key to Clemson's defensive improvement?
Williams: Well it certainly helped that Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, Stephone Anthony and Corey Crawford returned for their senior seasons. The key is in that front seven, where they are loaded with experienced, NFL-worthy players. It has been a long time since Clemson has thrown out a group of defensive linemen and linebackers this good and this deep. They are so physical at the point of attack, and I think you saw that last year when the Tigers managed to pull off the impressive feat of shutting down South Carolina's between-the-tackles running game with Mike Davis.
Given that the guys up front are all the same guys as last year, with the exception of departed WILL linebacker Spencer Shuey, one could make a strong case that an improved secondary has been the key to their improvement from last season. Last year they had a liability at one of the corner spots with Darius Robinson, and at safety with inexperienced freshman Jayron Kearse. Steve Spurrier did what Steve Spurrier does in last year's game and he attacked both weaknesses, repeatedly throwing to Robinson's receiver and then landing the dagger with the Wildcat toss over the head of Kearse.
4. Has South Carolina's winning streak gotten into the Tigers' heads at this point, and how has the Countdown Clock played with the Clemson players?
Williams: I tend to view the last five years in separate phases: From 2009 to 2011, I think South Carolina won because the Gamecocks had better talent in general and were better up front in particular. In 2010 and 2011, it was almost unfair how the Gamecocks' defense line dominated a vastly inferior offensive line. South Carolina just had gobs of talent on both sides of the ball those years. They were the better team.
The last two years is when I think you've seen the streak get into the heads of Clemson's players, and perhaps even coaches. The teams have been more evenly matched those years, yet South Carolina has still won by double digits both years. Whether it was Tajh Boyd throwing two really bad interceptions in 2012 to shift momentum in the Gamecocks' favor, or the six turnovers last year in Columbia, or the litany of dropped passes by normally dependable receivers both years, it strongly suggests that Clemson has demonstrated the weight of an agonizing streak with uncharacteristic mistakes.
None of the current players or coaches will publicly admit that the Gamecocks have been in their heads. But I'd imagine that years from now they'd confirm that notion.
Regarding the countdown clocks: I'd bet they're sick of seeing them, but I doubt that will play a role in the outcome of this game. Here's what will happen: The clocks will be excessively credited by Clemson fans if the Tigers win this game, and they'll be excessively criticized if they lose it.
5. Do you think Dabo Swinney believes Steve Spurrier when Spurrier insists he likes him?
Williams: Ha! I'm not certain of that, but it's been very interesting watching these two go back and forth over the last few years.
I think Dabo has been mystified by something other Spurrier adversaries have been mystified by over the years: Spurrier is quite nice to them in person, but then he lobs the barbs through the media. Personally, I think both of the coaches made mistakes: Dabo in going on that "It's not a rivalry" rant a few days after the 2011 beatdown in Columbia, and then Spurrier taking that shot at Dabo after Dabo expressed genuine, heartfelt condolences in the wake of Marcus Lattimore's 2012 injury.
Dabo has done the smart thing in reacting to Spurrier's digs with a sense of humor. I'm sure it does bother him some privately, but he's probably not losing much sleep over it. The far greater source of frustration has been the source of the smack talk: losing to Spurrier five years in a row.