Both the South Carolina and Clemson football programs have been trending upward the past few seasons. The trick in making predictions for the coming season is to figure if that trend will continue or whether either or both of the programs have peaked and will fall.
My sense is that neither team will be able to maintain that upward trend, at least in terms of national rankings. That does not mean either team is in for a down season. In fact, the Gamecocks will win the SEC East championship and Clemson will capture the ACC championship. But both will slip slightly from their final national rankings of a season ago ,when USC was No. 4 and Clemson was No. 8.
The reason both programs will again have sterling seasons is both have established solid foundations by stringing together several consecutive seasons of solid – sometimes spectacular – recruiting classes. No longer does either program have to rebuild, instead needing only to tinker with different areas of the team. USC, for example, needs time to develop a young defensive secondary. Clemson has a talented offensive line that lacks experience.
Neither of those areas of concern will prevent USC and Clemson from maintaining their status among the nation’s elite programs.
In analyzing each team’s season, let’s use Phil Steele’s College Football Preview magazine as a guide. Steele probably does the best job of any preseason magazine, and his unit ratings often are telling.
There is little doubting where Clemson’s strength lies this season. The Tigers, according to Steele, have the No. 2-ranked defensive line in the country, No. 7 linebacker corps and No. 17 set of defensive backs. That makes Clemson one of the best defensive teams in the country.
Nearly every coach in the land will tell you a team with a stout defense will go a long way. Such is the case with Clemson, which, if it did not schedule a couple of SEC opponents, would probably being eyeing a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff.
Sending a first-year starting quarterback in Cole Stoudt to open the season at Georgia is risky business. Stoudt is in for a sensational senior season, but winning at Georgia and at Florida State in the first three weeks is too much to ask. Clemson will lose both of those games.
Do not count me among the Florida State bandwagon jumpers. The defending national champions will lose three games, including a pair in the ACC, that will give Clemson the Atlantic Division title. The Tigers will then defeat North Carolina in the ACC championship game.
Clemson will defeat Auburn in the Orange Bowl to finish the season with a 11-3 record. Yes, the Tigers will lose a sixth consecutive game to USC. Until Clemson ends that streak, how can you reasonably predict the Tigers to win that game?
USC, meanwhile, will feature one of the nation’s top offenses, with Steele ranking the line No. 5 in the country, running backs at No. 10 and wide receivers at No. 20. The Gamecocks will be no slouch on defense, with Steele having the linebackers at No. 8 and defensive backs at No. 44.
USC will again employ its version of the basketball four corners offense, particularly early in the season as the defense develops. Look for the Gamecocks to get a halftime lead and resort to a power running game behind Mike Davis in the second half of games. Davis should get at least 20 carries per game, and that will make him a Heisman Trophy contender.
At a glance, the opening three games look daunting for USC. Do not be fooled. Texas A&M and East Carolina again will be among the poorer defensive squads around. USC’s offense should pile up huge numbers in those games, and the Gamecocks will extend their home-field winning streak to 21 games with a victory against Georgia.
USC will be favored in every game it plays this season, save for the late October date at Auburn. That will be the lone blemish in the Gamecocks’ regular season and will put them in the SEC championship game against unbeaten Alabama.
The Tide will roll over USC en route to the national championship, and leave the Gamecocks with an 11-2 record. Unfortunately for USC, the College Football Playoff selection committee will not allow a two-loss SEC team into the final four.
So, USC will defeat Michigan State in the Peach Bowl to conclude a fourth consecutive season of at least 11 wins and a top-10 national ranking.