COLUMBIA — At times this season, Steve Spurrier has openly criticized his team’s preseason top 10 ranking.
It was about The Hit, South Carolina’s football coach has said. People from across the country saw Jadeveon Clowney deck Michigan running back Vincent Smith. They expected it to happen every play. The hype was great, swelling through the summer months, building until the Gamecocks were No. 6 in the Associated Press preseason poll.
Now, it appears the hype was justified.
South Carolina returned to the top 10 Sunday, jumping two spots in the Associated Press poll to land at No. 10. It sets up arguably the biggest rivalry game ever between the Gamecocks and No. 6 Clemson, which travels to Williams-Brice Stadium for a 7 p.m. kickoff Saturday on ESPN2.
For the first time, both teams will be ranked in the top 10.
“It’s sort of neat that we’ve got two teams in the top 10 that started the season there and are still there after 11 games,” Spurrier said Sunday during his weekly teleconference. “So I know our state is proud of the two football schools we’ve got in the state of South Carolina. Should be a heck of a game, looking forward to seeing what happens here Saturday night.”
There’s a reason this hasn’t happened before. It’s rare for two schools from the same state to be in the top 10 this late in a season.
South Carolina is one of two states with multiple teams in the top 10. The other is Alabama, owner of the past four BCS championships.
When No. 4 Auburn hosts No. 1 Alabama this weekend on WCSC-TV, that game will take center stage across the country. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney knows that. He understands the Iron Bowl rivalry as well as anybody, spending three seasons with the Crimson Tide as a player and nine as a coach.
Regardless, Swinney said this rivalry shouldn’t be ignored.
“I think this rivalry is right up there now, as big as there is (anywhere) in the country. I really do,” Swinney said Sunday on his teleconference. “When you look at the consistency both programs have had over the last few years, I think it’s right there. I really do.”
It’s an abrupt, course reversal for Swinney. Just two years ago, he said his “kids’ grandkids won’t live long enough” to see this game blossom as a rivalry.
Perhaps several things have changed since then. The biggest is no secret.
“It’s got BCS implications,” Swinney said. “There’s not many of them out there that are going to bring that to the table. I think everybody will be tuned in to see Clemson-South Carolina for sure.”
Clemson likely has an Orange Bowl bid locked up, so long as Florida State heads to the BCS championship game in Pasadena, Calif. South Carolina is still in the hunt for a Sugar Bowl appearance, though it has plenty of company in the SEC.
So the BCS implications are there, but Saturday will be about more than that. Swinney said it’s about bragging rights — something South Carolina has and Clemson desperately wants back. It’s about staying in the top 10, representing a state whose football credentials can be argued with any other in the country right now.
“I think it just adds to some recognition to our state that both the universities are pretty good in football,” Spurrier said. “They emphasize football, and we’re trying to be the best we can be just like they are. I just think it just adds some recognition and maybe some prestige to both of our schools.”