SAPAKOFF COLUMN: South Carolina-Clemson rivalry heats up as Tigers whiff
CLEMSON — Clemson had it all lined up Friday, 80,000 orange pom-poms in neat rows at Death Valley. An unexpected strong wind blew some of them away.
The No. 13 South Carolina Gamecocks arrived Saturday night with everything aligned against them, and the No. 12 Tigers blew a golden opportunity.
So much for revenge, facing a backup quarterback, taking advantage of a depleted South Carolina running game.
Two starts, two wins, two 300-yard passing games for Dylan Thompson, star of the Gamecocks' 27-17 victory.
“It seems like when we play Clemson,” Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier said, “they don't play very well.”
Our official Palmetto State football rivalry is at peak interest.
Clemson leads the series 65-41-4, but has lost four in a row.
The Tigers were favored, but couldn't block Jadeveon Clowney long enough to make big plays.
The Gamecocks have gone through dozens of quarterbacks that failed to defeat Clemson. Suddenly, they have two — Thompson and Connor Shaw — with 1-0 records against the Tigers.
Thompson's 310 passing yards were impressive, but a 20-yard scamper on third-and-19 before the clinching touchdown was the highlight play.
On the map
You're either emotionally invested or annoyed by all the nutty fans on edge.
The Tiger Burn in Columbia.
Rubber chickens dragged along Pickens County asphalt.
A seller's market for tickets.
National star power, even without Marcus Lattimore in a Gamecock uniform.
Two head coaches ideally suited for their gigs, Stephen Orr Spurrier — SOS — saving South Carolina's big-time dreams vs. homespun Dabo Swinney, an Alabaman just like Danny Ford.
DeVonte Holloman originally committed to Clemson. But South Carolina's versatile linebacker/defensive back hybrid Saturday night intercepted his third pass against the Tigers.
Dalton Freeman, Clemson's center and a team leader, said a Tiger victory was critical to “move forward and put this program on the map.”
It's on the map, and was on ESPN, televised nationally in prime-time.
It was close to a BCS Championship Game play-in game. Oh, if not for those Sunshine State shadows.
Clemson suffered a 49-37 loss at Florida State, South Carolina a 44-11 setback at Florida.
Or, consider that Georgia and Georgia Tech played Saturday with both teams headed for their respective conference title games. South Carolina clobbered the national championship-contending Bulldogs, 35-7. Georgia Tech was no match at Clemson, losing 47-31.
The long run
Brad Edwards was there for the only South Carolina-Clemson game featuring teams with a higher combined ranking. As a Gamecocks free safety in 1987, his interception return for a touchdown sealed a 20-7 victory for No. 12 South Carolina over No. 8 Clemson.
It looked like a long stretch of high-level competition would vault the rivalry into national significance. Scandals and other things happened.
A bullish Edwards was on hand Saturday night at Death Valley and agreed national significance momentum is back.
“I certainly see what Coach Spurrier is doing and it seems like Clemson is recruiting really well,” said Edwards, the athletic director at Jacksonville University in Florida. “Both teams are doing a better job of keeping the in-state talent at home. There was a long time when it wasn't that way.”
South Carolina benefited over three consecutive decisive wins from injuries to Clemson contributors C.J. Spiller in 2009, Kyle Parker in 2010 and Sammy Watkins in 2011.
No excuses for Clemson on Saturday night, not with the Gamecocks missing running back Marcus Lattimore and Shaw.
Same time next year, with icing.
Clemson opens the 2013 season at home against Georgia. Clowney will project as the first overall pick in the 2014 draft and Clemson might have at least one Heisman Trophy candidate.
In Clemson's Tajh Boyd and the Shaw-Thompson tag team in Columbia, the teams will combine with unusually extensive leadership at quarterback.
Just 51 weeks away.
Clemson can hardly wait.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff