South Carolina not looking past Clemson to SEC championship game
COLUMBIA -- Even for a South Carolina-reared kid like Tori Gurley, there was still a bit of learning to do about the rivalry between USC and Clemson.
The Gamecocks sophomore receiver began to understand it in a more profound way in the past year when he received a Facebook message from a South Carolina fan. He told Gurley that his dad had been buried with the following epitaph on his tombstone: "I'd rather be here than at Clemson."
"That's something that really affected me in a positive way," Gurley said, laughing. "This rivalry runs deep."
Those reminders -- some more subtle than that, obviously -- are perhaps important this week for South Carolina (8-3), which travels to face the Tigers (6-5) on Saturday night.
"A lot of fans are expecting us to come out and give it our all because it's the in-state rivalry game," said Gurley, from Rock Hill. "As a player, we're ready to go out and play this game."
Like Clemson a year ago, the Gamecocks have their first
conference title game berth on the horizon. Get caught looking ahead a week, and USC might be headed for something similar to the Tigers' 34-17 loss a year ago in Columbia.
Talk of the rivalry's importance heats up this week, but the chatter begins far earlier in the fall. Will drilling it into the Gamecocks' brains keep focus on this Saturday and not the one that follows?
"I know our fans hate them and their fans hate us," South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia said. "Pretty much everybody tells us at the beginning of the season to beat Clemson. We did it last year, but last year was last year and this is a whole new year."
Clemson's players and coaches talked last season, with the ACC title game just ahead, about how much the rivalry game meant to them. But then the Tigers -- 8-3 at the time, just like USC now -- were in sleepwalk mode at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Was it a cautionary tale for South Carolina, which plays Auburn in the SEC's championship game next week? Or a prequel to a similar slipup this week?
Desire, evidently, is a motivating tool in the Palmetto Bowl.
"We're going to have our head on straight," USC senior kicker Spencer Lanning said. "They came in a little full of themselves. They were in the same position we were, but I think we want it. We're going to come out and be ready to play ball."
Lanning grew up a Clemson fan in Rock Hill. His mom went to Clemson and his sister works there. So, maybe that qualifies Lanning as something of an expert on both sides of the rivalry.
But that still pales in comparison to Gamecocks defensive head coach Ellis Johnson, who has coached at both schools. (Brad Scott obviously falls into that category, as well.)
Johnson is a big proponent of preaching the importance of the rivalry to his players.
"I just love state of South Carolina football," said Johnson, from Winnsboro. "All college and universities, high schools and everything else. I wanted our kids to understand how special the rivalry was to our Gamecock Nation."
Spurrier has made a point, particularly as the season has progressed, to make that week's game the focus. One thing South Carolina can say -- with the glaring exception of Arkansas -- is that it has started every game well this season.
In the case of Arkansas, sources have said Spurrier downplayed that game even weeks before it was played, realizing games against East opponents would decide the division. The rest of the season, though, South Carolina has been as ready as it has claimed it would be. It's doing the same this week.
"We're fortunate we got a bonus game at the end of the season," Spurrier said Tuesday. "It doesn't diminish anything about the game this week. Every coach and every team should always, in my opinion, play the game that week."
The fact that it's Clemson adds even more to that notion, to Spurrier.
"There's a lot on the line every year," he said. "The same thing is true this year."
CB Stephon Gilmore (concussion) returned to practice Tuesday in a limited capacity. The sophomore said he expects to be fully cleared today. He will start Saturday. Opposite CB Marty Markett also returned Tuesday to an extent. He is also expected to be available.