I was asked last week if I could ever imagine South Carolina winning four -- with a strong possibility of five -- in a row against Clemson? My answer was, “Never in my eternally-optimistic, wildest dreams.” I added that this streak is for all of us “old timers.”
My early experiences with the Gamecocks were good. My freshman year, 1964, I remember listening to the game in my dorm room as quarterback Jim Rogers, subbing for an injured Dan Reeves, led Carolina to a fourth-quarter, 7-3 win over the Tigers at Clemson. I got a student ticket for the '65 game as quarterback Mike Fair, a hall mate, and field goal kicker, Jimmy Poole, my roommate from the year before, were instrumental in the 17-16 win against the Tigers.
The Gamecocks dropped two in a row before quarterback Tommy Suggs led coach Paul Dietzel's teams to three straight in '68, '69 and '70. The '69 win was special, because it was the cherry on top of the ACC Championship. USC clinched the week before with a victory against Wake Forest.
The familiar pattern returned, as Carolina lost three of the next four, and then came 1975. I was really lucky to get a ticket just before kickoff for what turned out to be the most dominating USC win in the history of the series. Jeff Grantz threw five touchdown passes, the last with 48 seconds remaining, as the Gamecocks scored on all eight possessions in a 56-20 romp over their rival.
This is just a rumor, of course, but the story goes that several of the top Tigers donors did not even wait until they got back to Clemson, but met in the rest stop that's in the middle of I-385, and declared they would do “whatever it takes” to insure there would never again be an embarrassment like the one they had just witnessed.
It was during this time that Clemson's recruiting, especially in-state, spiked, which led a National Championship in 1981. The program was put a two-year NCAA probation for recruiting violations in '82. They were deemed guilty of “improper recruiting inducements, extra benefits to student-athletes, unethical conduct, improper financial aid, improper campus visits, improper transportation and entertainment, improper use of funds, improper employment, improper recruiting contact, and distribution of cash to players by members of the coaching staff.”
Draw your own conclusions about what role “whatever it takes” played in all those “impropers.”
Regardless, beginning in '76 there were USC losing streaks of three, four, four, four, and four games through 2005. In Carolina's seven wins in that three-decade period the most memorable were the do-over extra point, 22-21 win in the “Black Magic” '84, season; the 20-7 victory in '87; the so-called “Rodney” game, when 75,000 USC fans began a synchronized chant of Clemson quarterback Rodney Williams name; and the 33-7 romp at Clemson in '94, because the Gamecocks followed that decisive win with the first-ever bowl victory, a 24-21 decision over West Virginia in the Carquest Bowl.
There are two realties for USC, pass and present. Past: Clemson still holds an overwhelming 65-40-4 advantage in the series. Present: the Tigers are 10-1 and the 6th-ranked team in the country.
The most-asked question of me last week was, “Am I worried?” about Carolina losing this 111th meeting between the two schools. The Tigers are a good football team, and I might have to eat my words, but I believe “fear the thumb” becomes a new reality.
Why? It's been my explanation since the streak began, and I believe it will be the case this season: Clemson has not recruited the caliber of linemen, especially offensively, to match Carolina's.
Actually, the Tigers remind me of the Gamecocks in the '80s, loads of skill players at wide receiver, running back and quarterback, but never the linemen to take them to the next level. And while improved from last year, the Tigers’ defense has given up some points and some big plays in their 10 wins.
Essentially, this is the third “major” game of the season for Dabo Swinney's team. The Tigers beat Georgia 38-35, which was a bad snap away from overtime. Then, they were blasted 51-14 by Florida State, and now they face a potential SEC Eastern Division Champion. I think the Gamecocks have too much, in too many positions for an ACC-caliber team.
The keys? The defense has to make Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd as uncomfortable as it has the past two years. He may hold over 50 school records, but when pressured, he makes mistakes. The Gamecock offense must have its best performance of the season, run the football to keep Clemson's offense on the bench and take advantage of every opportunity to put points on the board.
From a weather standpoint, it will be reminiscent of the '87 game. It will be a crystal-clear November night game, with the wind chill in the low 40s. I can't wait to see how it plays out.
It's a great time to be a Gamecock!