SAPAKOFF COLUMN: Spurrier’s best year; Dabo, too

Steve Spurrier

C. Aluka Berry/caberry@thestate.

Our worst fears were realized,” were Steve Spurrier’s words that rocked Gamecock Nation, official notice that star tailback Marcus Lattimore was out for the rest of the season with a knee injury suffered during a nail-biter win at lowly Mississippi State.

A few days later, Clemson beat North Carolina, 59-38, to vault to 8-0. Hard to find South Carolina takers that week in any sort of 2011 matchup with the Tigers.

Now look.

Just as they have been in every game except Arkansas this season, the Gamecocks are favored Saturday night against No. 18 Clemson.

No Lattimore, no veteran quarterback, no experience at left tackle. No matter. USC is ranked No. 14.

Thanks to Dabo Swinney’s rise from suspect to Orange Bowl trophy-holder candidate, the Palmetto State coach of the year award remains up for grabs. But this is Spurrier’s best season as a South Carolina head coach, an autumn of adroit adjustment amid distractions, some of his own making, but mostly a series of bad breaks, twists and ligament tears.

Yes, it’s possible to say a team certain brilliant experts picked to sail through the regular season has overachieved at 9-2.

‘Not the only way’

This current Gamecock cast would have been picked to finish third or fourth in the SEC East in most preseason polls.

“There’s no question, they’ve done a tremendous job of playing to their strengths and giving themselves a chance to win,” Swinney said Tuesday during his news conference in Clemson.

Swinney will win the ACC Coach of the Year award, unless Virginia’s Mike London upsets Virginia Tech on Saturday and arranges for the Cavaliers to play Clemson in the ACC championship game.

As Spurrier pointed out during his Tuesday news conference, the 9-2 Tigers theoretically were in the national title hunt just one week ago, before a 37-13 debacle at N.C. State.

While flipping playbook pages from an attacking offense featuring quarterback Stephen Garcia and Lattimore to a run-based, ball-control style built around Connor Shaw and Brandon Wilds, Spurrier has kept an eye on offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ hyperactive approach at Clemson.

“It’s certainly a way to be successful; it’s not the only way,” Spurrier said. “It’s a way to score a lot of points, obviously. The other side is if you score quickly, your defense has got to play a lot more.”

Or if Sammy Watkins is injured and guys don’t block very well, things tend to fall apart.

Collision course

“It’s not complicated — 11 turnovers in three games,” Swinney said of Clemson’s recent 1-2 rut.

Remember, the Tigers had a “worst fears” hurdle, too. This was a team hoping to recover from the sting of a 6-7 season when Wofford showed up for the second game of 2011. Down 35-27 in the fourth quarter and facing fourth-and-2, Terriers quarterback Mitch Allen dashed for a 31-yard gain to the Clemson 38.

Death Valley got really quiet and pretty much stayed that way until the victory was secure.

Swinney for the second time in three years has Clemson headed for the ACC championship game, the showcase Tommy Bowden was never able to reach.

Spurrier is 13-14 against Clemson, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee. Lou Holtz was 3-21 in those games most important to Gamecocks fans. Spurrier in 2011 set a school-record for both SEC wins (6) and backfield repairs.

Reach Gene Sapakoff at gsapakoff@postandcourier.com or Twitter@sapakoff.