COLUMBIA — There was a game on the Saturday after Thanksgiving last year.
It just wasn’t THE game.
“Fans wanted to have it happen, the schools wanted to have it happen, too,” said longtime Clemson fan Bryan Smith, a high school teacher and coach in Rock Hill. “But the logistics were made by voices higher up than those who wanted it.”
The decision that canceled the 2020 South Carolina-Clemson football game was made well before the season began, a result of COVID-19 forcing every facet of life into disarray. The ACC rearranged its schedule into a 10-game slate, nine conference games and a non-conference game of each school’s choice, so as to allow for traditional rivalry games.
But the SEC said it was going to 10 games, all within the conference. That cut out Kentucky-Louisville, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Florida-Florida State …
And South Carolina-Clemson. For the first time in 111 years.
The USC brass vociferously argued against it and when it came time to vote the new schedule into existence, USC was the only dissenting vote. But majority ruled, and USC and Clemson were forced to deal with it.
It ended the second-longest continuously played rivalry game in the country. And legions of fans on each side of the fence were wondering just what they were going to do on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Clemson hosted Pitt that day and won 52-17, while South Carolina hosted Georgia in a 45-16 loss.
“It was sad, because as much as we take pride in everything that we’ve done in the SEC — just like last week, beating Auburn was, ‘Holy cow, here we go!’ and beating Florida, sorry Dan Mullen — doing all that was awesome,” said Heather Webb of Clinton, who has been to 26 or 27 rivalry games, including 21 in a row in one stretch.
“But to not have that in-state rivalry that we’ve had for so long was just sad, because you couldn’t have the banter back and forth with your friends and your neighbors and your colleagues. It was upsetting.”
Smith had been to 26 straight rivalry games, starting in 1994. “I’ve done it every which way you can,” he said. “I’ve bought tickets through the schools, gone with friends, gone with no ticket in hand and bought it off a scalper.”
Last year he enjoyed seeing the Tigers destroy Pitt but felt like something was missing. Where were the rubber chickens being dragged around by their necks and the 30-gallon steel drums painted garnet and black, stamped with "Beat USC," torn in half by the Clemson ROTC unit banging on them for 24 straight hours?
“I was really disappointed. It’s a great showcase for both programs usually, great for our state,” Smith said. “We had a really good team and after enduring five losses in a row, it’s nice to have a streak of our own to try to continue it.”
Chuck Allen, Anderson resident and former member of USC’s Board of Trustees, only attended one game last year (a home win over Auburn) due to the pandemic. He played in four rivalry games as a defensive tackle from 1977-80, and since, he estimated he’d attended 25 to 30 USC-Clemson contests.
But the decision was made and that was that.
“The vast majority of this state is so invested in it. It definitely was weird,” he said. “Over a century of consecutive games, it was really odd to be in that situation.”
It’s why Nov. 27 this year has been circled even more than usual. It’s been re-circled because of the dirty truth — had the rivalry game been played last year, it likely would have been Clemson’s seventh straight win, as the Tigers were again going to the College Football Playoff and the Gamecocks were 2-8.
As this year has progressed, Clemson looks ordinary at 8-3. The Gamecocks have given USC fans hope after victories over Florida and Auburn in recent weeks and are 6-5 entering Saturday's game.
“It’s just a restoration of normalcy,” Allen said. "The Saturday after Thanksgiving, the most intense rivalries in the United States are resuming, and we get to participate in that.”
Allen, Smith and Webb will be in Williams-Brice Stadium on Nov. 27 as the two teams again clash. Thanksgiving is great, but this weekend has become about much more.
Be thankful on Thursday.
Win on Saturday.