IF THERE IS such a thing as outside pressure involved in a college football game, then that chamber has enveloped Clemson for Saturday’s rivalry game against South Carolina.
One could make a pretty strong case that all the pressure for this game rests on Clemson’s shoulders.
Let’s first look at it from the USC viewpoint. The Gamecocks’ season essentially came to a screeching halt following back-to-back losses at LSU and Florida. Dashed were dreams of conference or division championships, a national championship game appearance and a BCS bowl bid.
When it gets down to it, USC has very little to prove against Clemson. The Gamecocks are recognized as one of the top teams in the powerful SEC. A win over Clemson of the ACC would not alter the image of the SEC. More importantly, neither would a loss.
The only matter at stake for USC is a state championship, which has become somewhat of a manufactured title by coaches Steve Spurrier and Dabo Swinney over the past few years. It is a way for the coaches to maintain another goal for their teams even in seasons — like this one — when both programs have fallen short of reaching their loftier conference championship goals.
As for a bowl berth, win or lose and USC remains in the same mix of mid-level SEC invitations. The Gamecocks are headed to one of a group that includes the Capital One, Outback, Chick-fil-A or Gator, none of which is any greater or lesser a bowl than the other.
Clemson, on the other hand, has much on the line Saturday, beginning with the outside possibility of playing in a BCS bowl. It is not out of the realm of possibility that a Clemson win and an 11-1 regular season will land the Tigers in the Sugar Bowl for the first time since 1959.
On top of that, Clemson is playing for national recognition and for the reputation of its conference.
There is a reason Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd is getting little attention for national awards despite having a superb season. Boyd has passed for 3,367 yards, thrown 33 touchdown passes and run for eight more scores.
None of that has helped him get into the Heisman Trophy picture because Clemson plays in the ACC. If Boyd played for LSU or Georgia or Florida or USC of the SEC, he would be included in national player-of-the-year talk. But not for a team that only shared a division title in the ACC.
Clemson has been most impressive in disposing of every opponent on its schedule, save for the loss at Florida State. But by playing in a league that ranks probably fifth in strength — behind the SEC, Pac-12, Big 12 and Pac-10 — Clemson’s 10 wins are dismissed.
When asked about the notion that a loss to USC on Saturday would take shine off all the Clemson wins this season, Swinney bristled.
“That’s sad. That’s a sad way to think about things,” Swinney said. “I think when people say that, they have no appreciation for winning, or how hard it is to win. It’s just that simple. It’s hard to win 10 ball games. It’s just hard to do. People who say those things, they just don’t understand. They don’t get it.”
No one is saying that Clemson’s season has not been outstanding. But if a top-level ACC team loses to a next-tier SEC team, it does bring into question the overall power of that ACC club.
Not only is Clemson playing for its own good Saturday, it also is playing for the ACC’s name, just as Florida State and Georgia Tech are playing for the ACC’s reputation in weekend games against Florida and Georgia, respectively.
When your league has two teams ranked in the BCS top 25 — Florida State at No. 10 and Clemson at No. 12 — it is important for those two to win games against BCS-ranked clubs from higher-ranked conferences. USC is ranked No. 13.
Finally, there is that three-year win streak USC has over Clemson.
A win Saturday would match the 1951-54 stretch as USC’s longest win streak against Clemson. USC fans would love nothing more than to move that streak to four games, and would boast of that string for years to come.
But the real pressure is on Clemson to end the streak.