Associated Press Photo
CLEMSON, S.C. (Sports Network) - A top-25 showdown in the Palmetto State is on tap, as 13th-ranked South Carolina makes the short trip to Death Valley to take on 12th-ranked Clemson on Saturday night in the regular-season finale for both squads.
Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks have had another stellar season, coming into the regular-season finale with a 9-2 overall record, including a 6-2 mark in the SEC, good for second place in the SEC East. USC enters this contest with a three-game win streak in tow, including a 24-7 win over FCS foe Wofford last weekend.
Dabo Swinney's Tigers move to 10-1 with last weekend's 62-48 shootout victory over NC State. It marks the first time in school history that Clemson has posted 10 wins in the regular season. The team finished in a first-place tie with Florida State atop the ACC's Atlantic Division, but lost out on a tie- breaker by virtue of its loss to the Seminoles earlier in the season, preventing the reigning ACC champs from defending their crown.
Following the win over NC State, Swinney made sure to turn his attention to the Gamecocks.
"We need to turn our focus to the University of South Carolina. We need to make every day in the rest of our season count. I've told them the whole season, every week is the biggest game of the year and we need to finish off this season strong."
This marks the 110th meeting between these two rivals and the 104th consecutive season the two programs have met. Clemson holds a 65-40-4 series advantage, but South Carolina has won each of the last three meetings.
The South Carolina offense was much more potent a couple of weeks ago before All-American tailback Marcus Lattimore was lost for the season with a devastating leg injury. WIth Lattimore out of the lineup, senior Kenny Miles (313 yards, two TDs) and freshman Mike Davis (232 yards, two TDs) have taken on a bigger role.
It has been up to quarterback Connor Shaw to keep the South Carolina ship on course. Shaw has played well at times, completing 67.3 percent of his passes, for 1,732 yards and 15 TDs, but sophomore Dylan Thompson (600 yards passing, five TDs) has seen time under center as well. Shaw is nursing a foot injury, but Spurrier is confident Thompson will be ready to go if need be.
Like a lot of SEC teams, South Carolina's success is predicated on stifling defensive play. The Gamecocks are yielding just 17.5 ppg this year, allowing a meager 310.8 yards of total offense.
Getting upfield and disrupting things is what USC does best. A ferocious pass rush (34 sacks) is spearheaded by All-American candidate Jadeveon Clowney. The 6-foot-6, 260-pound sophomore's days in Columbia are numbered after a monster season consisting of 43 tackles, 17.0 TFLs and 8.5 sacks. He has been slowed in practice by a foot injury, but should suit up come game time. Linebacker Shaq Wilson has had a strong season as well, leading the team in tackles (72), with two sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
The Gamecocks will be put to the test defensively by one of the top offenses in the country in Clemson. The Tigers are averaging 44.9 ppg this year, on a robust 535.6 yards of total offense. It is a pick-you-poison scenario with this offense, as the ground game accounts for 203.6 yards per game, while the passing attack generates 332.0 yards per game.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd is the straw that stirs the drink, completing 68 percent of his passes, for 3,367 yards and 33 TDs. It certainly helps to have one of the country's top receiving duos in DeAndre Hopkins (68 receptions, 1,171 yards, 15 TDs) and Sammy Watkins (53 receptions, 671 yards, three TDs).
The ground game is the second option in this attack, but productive nonetheless, thanks to the rushing exploits of Andre Ellington (959 yards, eight TDs) and Boyd (466 yards, eight TDs).
Spurrier knows his defense could be in for a long day against the Tigers.
"Clemson and the offense they have, is by far the best we've played against this year. Offensively, they've got all positions covered, receivers, tight ends, offensive line, running backs and then their quarterback has really been good. It will be a big challenge for us."
The Clemson defense has suffered from inconsistent play all season long, but the flaws have been masked by the stellar play of the offense. The Tigers are allowing 408.0 yards per game, getting gashed by both the run (163.1 ypg) and the pass (244.9 ypg).
The unit is paced by the linebacking corps, as Spencer Shuey (82 tackles), Jonathan Willard (80 tackles) and Stephone Anthony (76 tackles) lead the way. Safeties Rashard Hall (65 tackles, four INTs) and Jonathan Meeks (49 tackles, two INTs) are productive in the secondary.