Ron Morris

November 24, 2009

Morris: Rivalry game should open season

It is time to move the annual South Carolina-Clemson football game to the beginning of each season. There is no doubting where Steve Spurrier stands on the issue. Dabo Swinney is not so sure.

IT IS TIME to move the annual South Carolina-Clemson football game to the beginning of each season.

The move to the season-opener for both teams would help the rivalry garner more national attention. It would allow for an entire offseason of buildup to a meaningful season-opener. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it would remove the angst associated with a team having to prepare for the game with one eye on the rivalry and the other on a pending championship game.

USC athletics director Eric Hyman said he would withhold commenting on the possibility of a move until after Saturday's game. Clemson athletics director Terry Don Phillips said there is merit in considering such a move. Dabo Swinney is opposed because he likes the end-of-season rivalries across the country.

There is no doubting where Steve Spurrier stands on the issue. From his days coaching at Florida, Spurrier knows all about what Clemson and its coaching staff face this week. He knows Clemson can talk all it wants about winning the "state championship" and Saturday's game being as big as ever.

Spurrier also knows nothing - not even a rivalry game - can match the importance of a championship game such as Clemson faces on Dec. 5 against Georgia Tech in Tampa. A win would give Clemson its first ACC title since 1991 and likely send the Tigers to the Orange Bowl for the first time since defeating Nebraska for the national championship following the 1981 season.

"Yes," Spurrier said when asked if he would favor moving USC's game against Clemson to the start of the season. "Yes."

Spurrier called for the same move throughout his 12 seasons at Florida, where his Gators annually played rival Florida State in the regular-season finale. Seven times Spurrier and Florida faced Florida State with a Southeastern Conference championship game looming the next week.

Florida's record against Florida State in those seven games was 1-5-1. Granted, those Florida State teams were outstanding with national rankings of No. 7 or higher in every meeting. But there is no denying Florida's greater goal was to win the following week in the SEC championship game.

"In the long run, if you said, 'Which one would you take if you could win one but not both, which one would you take?' " Spurrier said. "You'd take the conference championship."

Every season when Spurrier mentioned moving the rivalry game, it would draw a chuckle from Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, whose teams did not play in a conference title game. Finally, when the ACC went to a championship game in 2005 and Florida State won its division, Bowden said he understood what Spurrier was talking about.

Spurrier has another reason to support such a move.

"I'd be in favor of trying to balance our schedule a little bit more," Spurrier said. USC will play Troy next season to help break up the end-of-season gauntlet it annually faces. Moving Clemson out of the season finale spot would further help USC avoid late-season swoons.

Beyond that, Clemson's Phillips believes it is worth considering a move for several reasons, not the least of which is many of his team's fans have complained about playing USC the Saturday following Thanksgiving. The annual game was moved after Thanksgiving when college football's regular season expanded to 12 games in 2002.

"That's not a bad idea," Phillips said of moving the game, "because, if you think about it, you have the whole summer leading up to that game. And, should you not win that game, you have the entire season to recover from it."

Traditionalists will argue that a rivalry game should always be played at the end of the season. In the case of USC-Clemson, the game has been played in that schedule slot for the past 50 years. Prior to that, the game was played midseason on Big Thursday, so another move would not be unprecedented.

There also is precedent nationally for moving a rivalry game. North Carolina and Duke shifted their annual game this year to midseason, and ACC Commissioner John Swofford said it worked to both schools' liking.

Colorado and Colorado State recently signed a new 10-year agreement to open each season playing at a neutral site in Denver. That game is televised nationally each season, and has been since the early 1990s.

Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild said he holds the opening-game rivalry over his players' heads throughout the offseason, reminding them daily that Colorado players might be working harder, and asking them what they have done that day to beat Colorado.

You have to believe a television network - ESPN comes to mind - would love to feature and promote USC-Clemson among its opening weekend of games every season.

Swinney is not so sure.

"That's hard for me to grasp hold of because my background is the big rival game always has been at the end," Swinney said. "Even when I was in high school, the Pelham-Thompson game (in Alabama) was the last game. Then it was Alabama-Auburn. That would be strange for me. I would not be in favor of that."

Swinney can be forgiven for speaking more from his heart than from a practical standpoint. Saturday's game will be his first coaching a division champion. It will be his first attempting to motivate his team, which can't help but look ahead to its game against Georgia Tech.

So, it might be worth checking back with Swinney following Saturday's game to see if he has changed his mind. By then, he might have realized the USC-Clemson game should be played at the start of the season.

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