clemson walk

The Clemson football team walks arm in arm down the field as part of its pregame ritual. File/John Byrum/Sideline Carolina

CLEMSON — Football is a ritualistic sport. Teammates perform special handshakes, coaches wear particular clothing items and fans sing decades-old songs. One of Clemson's pregame rituals is known as 'the walk of champions.'

Players and coaches gather on the 20-yard line and lock arms, with coach Dabo Swinney in the middle. Then they walk, building speed as they approach the goal line, at which point they jump and holler and scream.

It's done before every game, including on the road. Last week, when addressing South Carolina fans throwing water bottles at Clemson two seasons ago, Gamecocks announcer Todd Ellis said the Tigers "put us in a tough position" with the walk of champions, which in Columbia brings Clemson face-to-face with the USC student section in Williams-Brice Stadium. 

"Maybe that is something they could modify, if they felt like it was provoking them in some way," Ellis said on Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp's radio show.

Swinney on Tuesday pushed back at Ellis' comments.

"I think that's ridiculous," Swinney said, noting that the ritual in question has been performed for 17 seasons. "It's not any type of taunting, it's a unity thing for our team.

"If it's just something we did on the road, I could see that. But it's just who we are, what we do."

Many South Carolina and Clemson players and coaches have relationships off the field, but tensions rise when the annual rivalry game comes around.

The series has been mostly one-sided in recent years. Clemson has won the previous five matchups and is a 27-point favorite for Saturday's game. Frustrations abound for South Carolina and its fans.

But that doesn't mean Gamecocks fans are entitled to hurl items at Clemson players and coaches, Swinney said.

"You can yell and scream and holler, I think that's just part of it," he said. "But when you start throwing things at people — it's all fun and games until somebody gets their eye knocked out." 

Healthy Tigers

Clemson has suffered very few injuries this season. Defensive end Xavier Thomas missed some time with a concussion, but otherwise, the Tigers' starters have been mostly healthy.

Wide receivers Justyn Ross (bruised ribs) and Amari Rodgers (shoulder) left Clemson's 52-3 win over Wake Forest on Nov. 16 early, but Swinney said both have healed and will be ready for Saturday.  

Ross leads Clemson with 43 catches and is second in receiving yards (537) and touchdowns (6). Rodgers is tied for third in catches (25) and third in receiving yards (372) and touchdowns (4).

Etienne snubbed

The three finalists for the Doak Walker Award, given annually to the best running back in the nation, were named Monday.

Clemson running back Travis Etienne was not among the group, prompting shock from Swinney:

"If there's a running back award and Travis Etienne isn't in the finals of it, what a joke. I mean, really. You just wait and see who gets drafted first, and the type of career he's going to have. It's unbelievable."

Etienne, who has rushed for 1,335 yards and 14 touchdowns on 153 carries this season, wasn't bothered by being left off the award list. 

"Football's the ultimate team sport," Etienne said. "I can't get caught up in individual awards when our main focus is to win the national championship."

Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor, Ohio State's J.K. Dobbins and Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard are the three finalists.

Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.

Joshua Needelman covers Clemson for The Post and Courier. He's a Long Island, N.Y., native and a University of Maryland graduate.