COLUMBIA — The South Carolina football season didn’t start out this way. Steve Spurrier was bullish about his Gamecocks before and after they opened in Charlotte with a 17-13 victory over a good North Carolina team.
Clemson on Sept. 17 struggled in its first significant test of the season, a 20-17 victory at Louisville.
In between early impressions and Thanksgiving leftovers, Spurrier labeled himself part of the problem and quit and the Tigers clawed their way to No. 1. Saturday’s rivalry game at Williams-Brice Stadium (noon, ESPN) projects as one of the most lopsided in the history of a series Clemson leads, 66-42-4.
Clemson is 11-0.
South Carolina is 3-8 coming off a 23-22 home loss to The Citadel and won’t be going to a bowl game for the first time since 2007.
“They took Florida to the wire,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said of the Gamecocks. “They took Tennessee to the wire. They took Texas A&M to the wire. These guys are very capable.”
Ticket-dumping Gamecock fans are not convinced. Bobby Hartin, a Charleston sports radio talk show host and former South Carolina cheerleader, has asked that they not sell to anyone wearing orange.
The stakes haven’t been as high for Clemson since 1981, when the Tigers beat South Carolina, 29-13, on their way to a 12-0 season and national championship. A win Saturday and next week against North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte locks Clemson into the College Football Playoff semifinals, perhaps as the top seed.
Deshaun Watson, the Tigers’ do-it-all quarterback who beat South Carolina in 2014 while playing with a torn knee ligament, is a Heisman Trophy candidate.
South Carolina also is looking ahead — to next season and a new head coach. Even if interim head coach Shawn Elliott pulls the biggest upset of the 2015 college football season, athletic director Ray Tanner is likely to hire Spurrier’s replacement from outside. Multiple reports have Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart as a leading candidate, though the many head coach openings around the country make South Carolina’s search fluid.
Elliott isn’t conceding a thing, vowing to pull out “all the stops” against Clemson.
Last week, the Camden native openly campaigned for the job on his radio show. This week, he took the unusual step of bringing the football team to the school’s annual “Tiger Burn,” a tradition that dates to 1902. Elliott beamed this week, recalling reaction to a 30-foot artificial tiger going up in flames before a few thousand South Carolina students and supporters Monday night.
“You could see our players really appreciate it,” Elliott said. “And then as we were leaving, you could see our fans really appreciating us being there, even with the record that it is. We tried to make a point that it was important for us to be involved in our school, in our university and to make this the very best week that we could.”
Ultimately, Elliott would like to follow Swinney’s unconventional path to success. Like Elliott, Swinney was an interim head coach who had never been a coordinator when appointed to take over for Tommy Bowden at Clemson in 2008.
“He exudes confidence and he sells the Clemson spirit,” Elliott said. “That’s something, as another coach, you have to appreciate and you have to respect.”
Catching up won’t be easy for South Carolina on Saturday, or over the next few seasons.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff