CLEMSON — Clemson and South Carolina enter Saturday’s meeting each ranked in the top 15 for just the second time, and first time since 1987, in a rivalry that dates back to the 19th century.
The Tigers and Gamecocks enter Memorial Stadium each ranked for just the sixth time in the 110th game of the series.
In a historical context, Saturday’s meeting between ranked teams seems like an outlier, but this could be the new norm.
A key trend in the rising rivalry can be found in the census: population continues to migrate from the North to the South.
Over the last three decades, industries have left the Rust Belt. Many have come South. Major cities in the Clemson and South Carolina recruiting footprints — Charlotte, Atlanta, Columbia, Charleston and Greenville-Spartanburg — are all among the nation’s 45 fastest growing cities from 2000-2010. Only four million people live in South Carolina, but seven million people live within a two-hour drive of Clemson.
ESPN national recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said the shift of college power from North to South is permanent.
“The Midwest and Pennsylvania have dropped considerably because you have plants shutting down, mills shutting down, families have just moved out, the population has dropped, a lot have moved south,” Luginbill said. “The Southeast is the single most important region in college football when it comes to recruiting, which is also why the SEC has been so dominant.”
Consider in the 1970s — a decade when Southern teams began to integrate — six teams from the Midwest won national titles while just one program from the South, Alabama, captured a national title.
There was nearly an even split of national titles between the North (four) and South (five) in the 1980s.
But from 1990 to 2011, Southeastern teams combined to win 12 national titles — including six straight by SEC teams. Ohio State was the last Big Ten team to win a national title in 2002.
South Carolina and Clemson each benefit from the trend, recruiting at high levels in recent years. The recruiting footprint is one reason Brent Venables chose to leave Oklahoma to become the defensive coordinator at Clemson.
“There are so many places within in an arm’s reach of Clemson,” Venables said. “It’s where the athletes are.”
South Carolina has always produced great players, they just did not always stay home.
Consider from 2002-07, South Carolina produced 14 top 100 players according to Rivals.com, but only four stayed in state. Stars like Carlos Dunlap (Florida) left.
In recent years, there’s been a stunning reversal.
From 2008-12, the Palmetto State produced 11 top 100 players and all but one — Summerville’s A.J. Green — stayed in state, including Marcus Lattimore, Jadeveon Clowney and Da’Quan Bowers.
South Carolina and Clemson have closed the borders.
“Both of these teams realize the state is talented, but it’s top-heavy talent,” Luginbill said. “You might have five to seven prospects that are really good prospects — a Clowney, A.J. Green — those types, but then there is a pretty significant shelf that can drop off ... You keep the best at home and supplement your roster elsewhere.”
By keeping more players in state and recruiting at a high level in the region, Clemson has won a division title in three out of four years. South Carolina won its first division title in 2010 and was ranked as high as No. 3 in the country this year.
“The biggest difference is we’ve got better players,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said.
Winning, in turn, makes it more attractive for players to stay home, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
Lexington High coach Scott Earley said closing borders is tied to the Spurrier and Swinney staffs focusing more on South Carolina and building better relationships with prep coaches.
“Ever since Steve Spurrier came to South Carolina and Dabo Swinney came to Clemson, they stopped letting these kids get out of here,” said Earley, who built up the Myrtle Beach program. “It’s night and day from the (Tommy Bowden and Lou Holtz regimes). You are welcomed at both places. You are visited whether you have players or not. It used to be to you didn’t see a recruiter unless you had something worth recruiting.
“There are not any more (former Myrtle Beach High stars) Bruce Taylors going to Virginia Tech or Everett Golsons going to Notre Dame.”
Better prep football
It’s not just increasing volume that’s raising the rivalry — more people, keeping more prospects in state — it’s also the improving quality of prep football in the state, which is beginning to create more quality players.
“It ain’t Texas yet but it ain’t far from Georgia and Florida,” Earley said. “It has gotten a lot better in short period of time. There’s some people in the last 10 years that have really done football well, and it’s forced everyone else to up their staffs, and up their work ethic, and up the way they do things. It’s created an atmosphere where you either get better or you get run over. In the old days, all this lifting weights all the time and passing leagues all summer long, you did that stuff to gain an advantage. Now you do it to keep from getting embarrassed.”
Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris has first hand experience with elite high school football coaching from 1994 to 2009 in Texas.
“You’re looking at 1,900 high schools (in Texas) and also looking at coaches that don’t teach any classes they are football all day. It is hard to compare,” Morris said. “But there are some programs in our recruiting area that could go into Texas and compete day in and day out.”
There is something South Carolina players offer coaches that Texas prospects do not.
“The flip side is the opportunity to get a player out of South Carolina and see his upside being huge, compared to going to Texas ... the development of those players is a lot higher but the upside is not quite as big,” Morris said. “(But in South Carolina) you have to do a really good job of evaluation.”
Commitment to football
The other landscape shift is the record amount of money concentrated at both in-state programs. Clemson has poured $50 million into its West Zone facility at Memorial Stadium. The Tigers are readying to enter a $9 million indoor practice facility this month and are spending a nation-best $4.2 million on assistant coaches.
South Carolina is paying Spurrier a state record $3.6 million this season to coach. It has also spent millions in facility improvements in recent years.
“The facilities are such that we can recruit the top players in our state and some of the top players in Georgia, North Carolina, Florida,” Spurrier said. “We’ve had a change over the last eight years facilities wise, brings better football players, assistant coaches, trainers, strength coaches, the whole bit.”
Still, there are challenges in sustaining success.
South Carolina still has a small population. Powerful programs still reside in the region. USC and Clemson have made few BCS bowls, historically.
But the trends suggest Saturday’s meeting between top 15 teams is not an outlier, it is a beginning.