COLUMBIA -- Before last season, South Carolina hadn't defeated rival Clemson in back-to-back years since the Gamecocks won three straight from 1968-70. Though a win Saturday wouldn't give USC its longest winning streak in the series -- that would be four straight from 1951-54 -- this is still a season-defining game for these Gamecocks.
Rarely in this rivalry, which convenes for its 109th edition this weekend in Columbia, have both teams been this successful.
Both are 9-2. USC is ranked No. 14. Clemson is No. 18, having fallen 11
spots after losing at North Carolina State on Saturday. This will be just the fifth USC-Clemson game in which both teams are in the top 25.
The Gamecocks are 2-2 in the previous four such games. They won in 1979, when they were No. 19 and Clemson was No. 13, and in 1987, when they were No. 12 and Clemson was No. 8. Those are two of the best years in the Gamecocks' history, as they finished 8-4 both times. And even though they won't play for the Southeastern Conference championship in 2011, it will be remembered just as fondly as '79 or '87, if not more so, if they beat Clemson.
The Tigers are on their way to the ACC championship game in Charlotte next week, and while USC coach Steve Spurrier wanted to get a shot at winning the SEC championship in Atlanta, he will settle for what he sees as the next-best thing: beating Clemson.
"I used to say if I could only win one of them, I'd always take the conference championship," he said. "To me, that's what you play for no matter where you are anywhere. I know our fans don't look at it that way, but we're going to try certainly our best now (to beat Clemson) because we have no conference championship. So this becomes our big championship of the year right now."
Spurrier and his players aren't concerned about USC trailing the all-time series with Clemson 65-39-4. Nor are they satisfied with having won nine games for just the fourth time in school history, and the first time in back-to-back seasons. They want to win this week and in their bowl game, to surpass the 1984 team's school-best 10-2 record.
The particulars of this game are especially intriguing: Clemson's high-powered offense versus USC's stingy defense. The Tigers are No. 18 in total offense and No. 21 in scoring offense, while USC is No. 5 in total defense and No. 15 in scoring defense.
The Gamecocks accomplished those things with players whose status for Saturday is in question. Spurrier had no updates Sunday on the flurry of injuries the Gamecocks suffered a day earlier in a win over The Citadel: wide receiver Bruce Ellington (mild left ankle sprain), spur linebacker Damario Jeffery (more severe high left ankle sprain), linebacker Reginald Bowens (shoulder stinger), linebacker Quin Smith (didn't play because of back disc pain), linebacker Shaq Wilson (slight knee sprain) and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (mild concussion).
Those are all significant contributors Jeffery is the backup spur. Wilson and Rodney Paulk share time at one of the other linebacker spots, while Bowens and Smith share time at the other.
Also, starting strong safety DeVonte Holloman, who missed the previous week's win over Florida with a concussion, had a headache Saturday and "maybe another slight concussion," Spurrier said. "We don't think it was a big one."
As USC's defense prepares for Clemson's offense, this will be a busy week, to say the least, for trainer Clint Haggard.
"We'll just have to wait and see if those guys are going to be able to play," Spurrier said.