When Adam Sandler’s character in “The Longest Yard” was recruited by the warden to help his prison guards’ football team improve, Paul Crewe delivered a line of advice that applies to real college football.
“Relatively simple: you need a tune-up game,” Crewe said. “In college, we start every season against Appalachian State or some slack Division II team. Kick the living snot out of ’em. Get our confidence up.”
(Ironically, two years after the remake’s release, Appalachian State shocked Michigan in Ann Arbor to open the 2007 season.)
On the schedule of season openers kicking off two weeks from Saturday, there’s Ohio State vs. Buffalo. Oregon vs. Nicholls State, Texas A&M vs. Rice, and Georgia Tech vs. Elon.
Predominantly, school officials concur with Crewe’s philosophy.
But not always. Sometimes, conference schedules mandate a tough league lid-lifter, such as Florida State trekking to ACC newbie Pittsburgh on Labor Day. Or schools will collect a fat paycheck from a neutral site, made-for-TV showdown, like LSU vs. Texas Christian in Dallas or defending SEC and national champ Alabama against Virginia Tech in Atlanta.
Then, lastly, there are the true risk-takers. Those who willingly schedule a home-and-home with another BCS conference member, and elect to open a season with that challenge without the benefit of any exhibition or, as Crewe called it, “tune-up game.”
North Carolina and South Carolina go at it as the Thursday night appetizer to Saturday’s explosion of season openers. The host Gamecocks are ranked seventh in the USA Today coaches poll, while the Tar Heels are receiving votes.
About 48 hours later, No. 5 Georgia at No. 8 Clemson … well, that about speaks for itself. Arguably both teams’ national championship hopes hinge on beating the other, especially in Clemson’s case.
Remember, these schedules are crafted years in advance. Nobody could predict North Carolina would be on the rise, or Georgia would be a serious title contender, when Clemson and USC said, “bring it on.”
Unlike the NFL, college teams don’t get a dress rehearsal against unfamiliar foes. While USC’s assignment is decidedly easier than its Upstate rival, neither squad can afford to trip over its lines or take a mulligan, because they’re not dealing with some Division II team.
Here’s how Clemson and South Carolina have historically fared when opening against a team ranked in the preseason Associated Press top 25, along with how the rest of those seasons played out.
(4-6 against ranked teams in season openers)
1959: No. 18 Clemson 20, No. 12 North Carolina 18
Rest of the way: 9-2, 6-1 ACC. The major road win sprang the Tigers to another ACC title, punctuated by a 27-0 thumping of South Carolina and 23-7 over TCU in the Bluebonnet Bowl.
1974: No. 20 Texas A&M 24, Clemson 0
Rest of the way: 7-4, 4-2 ACC. The home team won 11 of 12 games involving Clemson that year, which did end with a 39-21 victory over the Gamecocks.
1977: No. 10 Maryland 21, Clemson 14
Rest of the way: 8-3-1, 4-1-1 ACC. This is an example of an early loss not affecting Clemson adversely. The Tigers responded with a seven-game win streak, and picked up another USC triumph.
1982: No. 7 Georgia 13, No. 11 Clemson 7
Rest of the way: 9-1-1, 6-0 ACC. Again, the early challenged helped, even in defeat coming off a national championship. Clemson tied its next game with Boston College, then beat the rest of its opponents, including North Carolina and Maryland (both ranked 18th at the time of the game).
2002: No. 8 Georgia 31, Clemson 28
Rest of the way: 7-6, 4-4 ACC. The Tigers bounced back with three home wins but ultimately went 0-4 against ranked opponents and got smushed 55-15 by Texas Tech in the Tangerine Bowl.
2003: No. 11 Georgia 30, Clemson 0
Rest of the way: 9-4, 5-3 ACC. Again, three wins followed, and this time, Clemson finished strong with four straight to end the year, including two shocking upsets while unranked: 26-10 over No. 3 Florida State at home and 27-14 over No. 6 Tennessee in the Peach Bowl.
2005: Clemson 25, No. 17 Texas A&M 24
Rest of the way: 8-4, 4-4 ACC. This time, the momentum didn’t last. After reaching the top 20, three straight losses (two at home) tumbled the Tigers, though late-season wins over the ranked Seminoles and Gamecocks, plus a Champs Sports Bowl win over Colorado, helped ease the sting.
2007: Clemson 24, No. 19 Florida State 18
Rest of the way: 9-4, 5-3 ACC. Again, a 4-0 start and No. 13 ranking evaporated with losses to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. Auburn beat Clemson 23-20 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
2008: No. 24 Alabama 34, No. 9 Clemson 10
Rest of the way: 7-6, 4-4. Tommy Bowden resigned at midseason, Dabo Swinney at least righted the ship.
2012: No. 14 Clemson 26, No. 25 Auburn 19
Rest of the way: 11-2, 7-1 ACC. Beating a team that was better than its final 3-9 record on this night, Clemson’s confidence swelled from here, only dropping games to top 10 compatriots FSU and South Carolina the rest of the way.
(3-7 against ranked teams in season openers)
1950: No. 16 Duke 14, South Carolina 0
Rest of the way: 3-4-2 overall, 2-4-1 in SoCon. After losing to Duke in the opener, USC goes 2-0-1, which included a 14-14 tie against No. 12 Clemson. Both USC and Clemson were still in the Southern Conference at the time.
1953: No. 10 Duke 20, South Carolina 7
Rest of the way: 7-3, 2-2 in ACC. This was the first season in the ACC for South Carolina. After losing to Blue Devils, USC wins seven of its next eight games. Only loss to second-ranked Maryland (24-6) over that eight-game stretch. USC was ranked No. 15 going into season finale against Wake Forest, which the Gamecocks lost 19-13. Beat Clemson 14-7.
1954: South Carolina 34, No. 18 Army 20
Rest of the way: 6-4, 3-3 in ACC. The Gamecocks shocked Army at West Point (N.Y.) as the Black Knights go on to a 7-2 season and finish ranked No. 7 in the country. Defeated Clemson, 13-8, in Columbia.
1957: No. 10 Duke 26, South Carolina 14
Rest of the way: 5-5, 2-5 in ACC. USC won three straight games after losing to Duke in opener. One of those wins came against No. 20 Texas (27-21) in Austin, Tex. Third straight loss to Clemson (0-13).
1971: South Carolina 24, No. 17 Georgia Tech 7
Rest of the way: 6-5. First season out of the ACC and started year 5-1. Lost four of their last five games, including 17-7 defeat at home against Clemson.
1983: No. 12 North Carolina 24, No. 11 South Carolina 8
Rest of the way: 5-6. Joe Morrison’s first season as head coach. Best win of the season was a 38-14 victory over Southern Cal, but ended the season with 22-13 loss at home to Clemson.
1986: No. 3 Miami 34, South Carolina 14
Rest of the way: 3-6-2. First year the Gamecocks used the run-and-shoot offense with quarterback Todd Ellis. Only win over a BCS school was Wake Forest (48-21) and tied Clemson (21-21) in season finale.
1992: No. 14 Georgia 28, South Carolina 6
Rest of the way: 5-6, 3-5 in SEC. First season in the SEC. Started the season 0-5, getting their first SEC win over Mississippi State (21-6) in week 6. Finished the season with a 24-13 win over Clemson.
1993: South Carolina 23, No. 14 Georgia 21
Rest of the way: 4-7, 2-6 in SEC. Georgia and Vanderbilt were only SEC wins for the Gamecocks in ’93. Lost to Clemson, 16-13.
1999: No. 24 N.C. State 10, South Carolina 0
Rest of the way. 0-11, 0-8 in SEC. First season under Lou Holtz and first winless season for the Gamecocks since 1897 (0-3-0). Loss to Clemson (21-13) was their 21st straight.