Head-to-head matchup: South Carolina at Clemson
The key to the Gamecocks one day retaking control of this rivalry, or leveling the playing field, is closing this gap. USC’s Jake Bentley has made precocious strides, and instead of playing for a high school title he has won four college starts. But Deshaun Watson shook off a few interception-prone moments this year to put up more huge numbers.
Rico Dowdle has provided South Carolina with the every-down back it’s lacked since the days of Mike Davis, going over 100 yards rushing in three of his last four games. But as solid as Dowdle’s numbers have been — and averages of 97.7 per game and 5.9 per carry are pretty good — he was bottled up in the loss at Florida. Clemson presents a more experienced and more proven back in Wayne Gallman whom USC may have trouble wrapping up.
Clemson promised the deepest group of receivers it’s ever had, and for the most part has not disappointed. Mike Williams has cemented himself as a first-round NFL pick next spring, Deon Cain has found the end zone nine times and Hunter Renfrow, Artavis Scott and tight end Jordan Leggett have been clutch. USC sophomore tight end K.C. Crosby has four of his team’s eight receiving touchdowns.
Kind of an up-and-down season for the Tigers’ blockers, both in performance and personnel. Center Jay Guillermo’s snaps have been on target, and freshman right tackle Sean Pollard has been a fine replacement for Jake Fruhmorgen, out indefinitely. For USC, Summerville product Zack Bailey is a bright spot of an experienced but struggling unit that has allowed 33 sacks.
Some solid players on both sides of the rivalry here. Give the edge to the host Tigers, who have a Nagurski finalist in defensive end Christian Wilkins surrounded by fellow backfield intruders Carlos Watkins, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and freshman All-American candidate Dexter Lawrence. Meanwhile, USC’s talented senior ends Darius English (9 sacks) and Marquavius Lewis are hard to contain.
Another one of those areas, like quarterback and defensive line, where USC is really good — but Clemson is simply better. T.J. Holloman, Jonathan Walton and Bryson Allen-Williams are savvy, experienced, and have raised this unit’s level of play even with Skai Moore out. But Clemson’s Ben Boulware is all-everything, Kendall Joseph is an emerging star as a sophomore, and the Tigers are just better and deeper across the board.
The position group Will Muschamp called “light years away” in the preseason has been the rock of USC’s defense. USC’s 13 interceptions are tied for second in the SEC, pacing a unit that leads the league in turnover ratio. Corner Jamarcus King can be a game-changer, as Tennessee and Josh Dobbs can attest. Clemson’s Jadar Johnson has four picks and Cordea Tankersley has a future at the next level, but this isn’t the Mackensie Alexander secondary of a season ago.
Advantage: South Carolina
A year ago, this was one area where the Gamecocks had an edge. Now? Outside of reliable kicker Elliott Fry, it’s a mess. USC can’t return punts, can’t defend kickoffs, and Sean Kelly has been punting with a sore leg that’s dulled his efficiency. Clemson’s Artavis Scott and Tavien Feaster average 23 and 20 yards per return, respectively, and the potential for a game-breaker will loom every time USC kicks the ball. This group cost Clemson the national title last year, and it’s been an area of emphasis ever since.
Aaron Brenner’s Take
It hasn’t been hard for Clemson’s coaches to say nice things about the improving Gamecocks, who as opposed to last year’s matchup have a tomorrow to look forward to in the form of a bowl game. Certainly, USC will be motivated to wreck its rival’s championship hopes, and has the defense to make things interesting. However, Clemson’s defense should have a field day against USC’s freshman-laden offense, which isn’t ready to match Deshaun Watson point-for-point on the scoreboard.
Prediction: Clemson 38, South Carolina 10
David Caraviello’s Take
For South Carolina, the real work has already been done, and barring a rout of 63-17 proportions nothing will really spoil a season that’s been a very pleasant surprise. But the spread is huge for a reason — this is the best team USC has faced, bar none, and the Gamecocks’ old tackling issues raising their head the past two games can’t be comforting against the Tigers’ armada of skill-position stars. For USC, this all comes down to defense: they need to wrap up, prevent big plays, and give their offense a chance. In Death Valley, even that may not be enough.
Prediction: Clemson 42, South Carolina 20