CLEMSON, SC (WIS) - Will Muschamp and his players have gone by the mantra “Each Week Is A Season” since the start of the 2018 campaign. If that is truly the case, this week is the season that fans across the Palmetto State have been looking forward to the most.
South Carolina and Clemson will square off in another installment of the Palmetto Bowl on Saturday night at Death Valley. The Tigers are currently ranked No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings and look to take inch closer to their fourth consecutive playoff appearance.
"This will be a heck of a matchup on Saturday night," Swinney said. "This is what it’s all about, a one-game season for us and I know it’s important to both sides. For us our focus is trying to finish and playing our very best four quarters of the season."
Clemson (11-0) comes into each year with the same four goals in mind: win the opener, win the division, win the state, win the closer. The Tigers have easily accomplished the first two milestones and hope to capture the third for the fifth straight time since 2014. Before that, the Tigers were on the losing end of a five-game losing streak to the Gamecocks.
“That was a tough stretch for sure,” Swinney admitted. “Listen, at some point they’re going to beat us again. This is life. This is football. Hopefully not in my time, that would be great. Hopefully not this year. Chances are they are going to win a game. I just want to make sure we can keep our program consistent and year in and year out have a chance to compete in this championship and then in our league and beyond.”
Swinney’s offense is led by freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence. He has completed 65 percent of his passes for 2,095 yards, 21 touchdowns, and four interceptions giving the Tigers a legitimate threat in the vertical passing game.
“Trevor Lawrence can make all the throws,” said Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp. “He’s got tremendous arm talent, and they’re good in what they do offensively. They’ve given him the whole playbook. He’s really done a good job taking care of the football, (making) explosive plays down the field, getting the ball in the right spot.”
In the run game, the Tigers rely heavily on Travis Etienne. The sophomore running back leads Clemson with 1,157 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns on 136 carries. Although Etienne is the workhorse of the group, the Tigers have several options they can plug in to get productivity when it comes to their rushing attack.
“Etienne, the running back, is a guy I’ve been very impressed with. (He has a) really strong lower body. He’s got big-time speed,” Muschamp said. “(Tavien) Feaster is another guy they feature back there, but Travis is a guy that really catches your eye when you watch the tape. He’s made a lot of big plays for them throughout this year and really, their run game has been remarkably better from a year ago in my opinion, watching them and watching him run this year.”
The Gamecocks will have their hands full with the Clemson offense. The Tigers are eighth in the country in total offense averaging just over 520 yards per game and fifth in scoring offense averaging 44.7 points per game. South Carolina is 63rd in the country surrendering 26.7 points per game.
“Defensively they are really good up front,” said Swinney. “They have a bunch of guys but have had a few injured. There are a few question marks as to who is going to line up for them on defense. Looking at the totality of their season and the guys we competed against last year, there are some really good football players. (D.J. Wonnum) is as good as there is out there, especially when he’s been out there. (T.J. Brunson) is a good player. All of these guys up front have played a lot of football. They’ll probably get (Steven Montac) back. I think he’s a really good player. (Rashad Fenton) is an outstanding player for them at corner.
The challenge for the Gamecocks in terms of getting past the Clemson defense will also be tough. The Tigers are the top team in the country when it comes to scoring defense (12.1 points per game) and second in total defense (254.4 yards per game) under defensive coordinator Brent Venables.
“Brent was at Oklahoma when I was at Texas,” Muschamp recalled. “His guys play hard. You turn the tape on and, whatever strengths that they may play to, the biggest compliment I give Brent is his guys play hard. They’re going to step on the field and he’s going to demand that they play hard. That was true at Oklahoma and it certainly is true today as well.”
The Clemson defense is led by linebacker Kendall Joseph with 67 tackles. When it comes to getting into the backfield, Clemson’s top defender is defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence with 10.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss. However, the Tigers’ front seven has caused problems for everyone they’ve faced.
“Defensively, (it’s) the same front four we’ve faced for three years: (Dexter) Lawrence, (Christian) Wilkins, (Clelin) Farrell and (Austin) Bryant,” Muschamp said. “They’re very talented players, and Brent (Venables) does a good job mixing things up with those guys. Tre Lamar and Kendall Joseph are two really good linebackers that do a nice job, and (they have) some talented guys on the back end.”
Carolina averages just shy of 32 points per game, but they’ll have to find a way to put points on the board early. The Tigers have only given up 25 points in the first quarter, but they’re certainly not overlooking this USC offense and what they’re capable of.
"I think Bryan (McClendon), their offensive coordinator, has done a great job for them,” Swinney said. “He’s a heck of a coach and you can see his influence in their style of play and the confidence they are playing with. Definitely the addition of (Deebo Samuel) and (Shi Smith), I don’t think (Smith) played last year. When you get those two guys, you get better in a hurry. Those two are really good football players they didn’t have. And they’re just more confident, the consistency and continuity. And then (Jake) Bentley is a really good football player."
In nine games played, Bentley has completed just over 65 percent of his passes for 2,244 yards and 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions. One of his favorite targets, Deebo Samuel, has a team-high 48 catches for 639 yards. On the other side of the formation, Bryan Edwards has 42 catches for 659 yards. Both Samuel and Edwards have six touchdown receptions on the year.
South Carolina will face Clemson Saturday night at 7 p.m. on ESPN.