COLUMBIA — Artavis Scott might still be running.
It’s easy to envision the Clemson wide receiver still churning up turf, taking that little flip pass and boring from Death Valley straight into the collective consciousness of South Carolina fans who probably saw that orange streak in their sleep. And here’s the rub — it may just be the beginning.
Last fall’s mauling at Memorial Stadium may have marked a turning point in the Palmetto State’s biggest college football rivalry, and not just because USC’s five-year reign over That School From Pickens County was brought to an abrupt end. Yes, Vic Beasley is off to the NFL, and that dominating Clemson defense won’t be exactly the same with just three starters returning. But on the other side of the ball, the Tigers are set up to be very good for a very long time.
It’s not just quarterback DeShaun Watson, who should have two fully-healthy knees when he travels to USC in late November. Combine him with receivers Scott and Mike Williams, tailbacks Wayne Gallman and C.J. Davidson, and tight end Jordan Legget — that might be the best crop of offensive skill players the Gamecocks face all season. And did we mention that none of them are seniors?
Now, what that portends for Clemson in the ACC race, who knows. For USC purposes, the focus is Nov. 28. That defense still has enough pieces to be formidable (hello, Shaq Lawson), the lineup on offense looks nothing short of dynamic, and the Gamecocks will have their hands full trying to stop Clemson from building a winning streak in the rivalry which could approach the one the Tigers just broke.
Head coach: Dabo Swinney (61-26 in seven seasons at Clemson and overall)
Returning starters: Nine (Six offense, three defense)
2014 record: 10-3 (6-2 ACC, second in Atlantic Division)
Scoring offense: 30.8 points scored per game (54th nationally)
Scoring defense: 16.7 points allowed per game (third nationally)
Series: Clemson leads 66-42-4
Opposing beat writer: Aaron Brenner, the Upcountry Picayune, also known as the Post and Courier’s Clemson bureau (@Aaron_Brenner)
Last meeting: Clemson 35, South Carolina 17 on Nov. 29, 2014 in Clemson. USC’s bid for a sixth consecutive victory over its in-state rival instead turned into the Gamecocks’ least competitive performance since their season opener. Playing on what turned out to be a torn knee ligament, Watson and Clemson’s host of young, talented skill players ran up and down the field on a Gamecocks team that simply couldn’t keep up when matched against the Tigers’ vaunted defense.
1. Beasley will be hard to replace. It’s tough to lose a guy who finished with 12 sacks and 116 tackles, and not struggle to fill those shoes. Three starters on Clemson’s post-spring depth chart tallied single-digit solo tackles last season, so some first-time starters are going to have to step up. Yet it’s not all bare — end Lawson, safety Jayron Kearse and linebacker Ben Boulware are more experienced players that DC Brent Venables can lean on.
2. Watson had surgery after the USC game. The QB missed the Tigers’ bowl game (in which Cole Stoudt filled in quite admirably) as well as spring practice after undergoing surgery to repair the torn left knee ligament on which he still somehow played against South Carolina. He’s expected to recover fully, barring a surprise discovery of Kryptonite on the shores of Hartwell Lake.
3. One offensive coordinator became two. Former Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris left after last season to become head coach at SMU, so Swinney replaced him by appointing receivers coach Jeff Scott and running backs coach Tony Elliott as co-offensive coordinators. The duo plans to continue with Morris’ philosophy, which averaged over 400 yards per game last year.
Week before: The Citadel
Next week: SEC Championship Game. Well, it will be played, whether USC is in it or not
On the horizon: Bowl season, where the Gamecocks would go for a school-record fifth consecutive postseason victory should they be eligible