The stakes have gotten higher, and the obsessing has started a little earlier, for this year's edition of Carolina vs. Clemson (7:00 p.m. EST, Gamecock IMG Sports Network). Can you blame anyone? Never in the 110-game history of the series have the teams met with more combined wins. Never before could a BCS bowl go to the winner, and a BCS brush-off go to the loser. The game features one of its sharpest contrasts of styles ever, with Clemson's jaw-dropping offense squaring off against Carolina's jaw-breaking, SEC-tested defense. Neither team has faced an opponent quite like the other. And because of that, never has the outcome felt like such a complete, utter mystery. It makes for one compelling, combustible showdown at Death Valley Saturday night.
More notes as we dive into our prep for Clemson:
Run Kenny Run: Kenny Miles plays each game with one number in mind.
"I always say to myself, 'You only have 50 [yards],'" Miles told me.
He explained the psychology behind it. "If you keep telling yourself you're having a good game, then you'll lose focus. But if you keep telling yourself you only have 50, you'll keep playing hard. You've got to keep finishing your runs. You'll keep grinding for those yards, and you'll wind up having a pretty good game," he said.
Kenny Miles has had several productive games against Clemson in his Carolina career.
Miles has had a few of those against his in-state rival. As a freshman, Miles rampaged for 114 yards against Clemson, a career high that stood until last week. Last year, he posted a season-high 71 rushing yards. With Connor Shaw nursing a sore foot, Miles' productivity could be magnified.
Keep Your Powder Dry: The talk this week has revolved - rightfully so - around Clemson's deadly, dizzying up-tempo offense. Led by running back Andre Ellington, quicksilver receivers Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins, and quarterback Tajh Boyd, the Tigers are averaging 536 yards of offense, the sixth-highest total in the country. The Tigers' tempo (82.1 plays per game, 3rd nation) makes it difficult, if not impossible, for defenses to make substitutions and checks.
The Gamecocks haven't faced a team that plays at such warp speed, but here's a lesser-known fact: they have faced a team with similar explosiveness. Clemson averages 6.52 yards per play, the second-highest average among South Carolina's opponents. The only team that rips off more yards per play? Georgia (7.00).
The Gamecocks smothered the Bulldogs in their October 6 meeting, holding them to an average of 3.3 yards per play. South Carolina set the edges, denied cutback lanes, and affected quarterback Aaron Murray with pressure from their "rabbit"package. A similar recipe may be required Saturday.
Tajh Boyd's numbers compare favorably to Georgia's Aaron Murray (right). Will a similar result follow in Death Valley?
Incidentally, Boyd ranks second in the nation in passing efficiency behind - you guessed it - Aaron Murray. The Gamecocks forced Murray into career lows in completions and passing yards.
Poised to Strike? South Carolina just finished off its first perfect home record since 1987, but on the road, the Gamecocks have been plagued by curiously slow starts. In four road games, Carolina has been outscored 51-20 in the first half, and its 255.5 yards per game ranks 119th in the nation, placing them in the company of such lightweights as 3-8 Auburn, 2-9 Tulane, 1-9 Hawaii, and 1-10 Idaho.
The perils of a slow start on the road are well-documented. Perhaps this stat will offer encouragement. Look at where Clemson ranks in total defense against FBS winning teams, and the company they keep:
NCAA Rank Team Yds. Allowed/Game
100. Arkansas 492.1
101. Clemson 493.8
102. East Carolina 494.3
103. Wake Forest 494.5
104. Tennessee 494.6They Gamecocks toasted those teams for an average of 41 points per game. Can Bruce Ellington, Ace Sanders, and the Gamecock tight ends poke holes in a Clemson secondary that will be without its starting cornerbacks? Can the Gamecock offensive line get downhill early? If so, can they put Carolina's slow road starts behind them?
State of Recovery: Like any rivalry game, turnovers can swing momentum quickly. The Gamecocks are one of four teams in the nation that has not recovered a fumble on the road this year. BYU, Army, and Oklahoma State round out the support group.
South Carolina - Fumbles Recovered
Pressure to Pressure? I asked Devin Taylor if the defensive line felt more pressure to hurry Boyd. In typical, stoic style, the senior defensive end offered his reply:
"There's always pressure on our front four to affect the quarterback."
For the final time, Taylor will cast his 6'8" shadow on the Carolina-Clemson series, leading a pass rush that ranks eighth in the nation in sacks (34.0). Lest you think the Tigers have faced toothless pass rushes, though, Clemson has played four teams that rank in the Top 30 nationally in sacks. In the face of pressure, Boyd has a ready answer: he ranks second on the Tigers in rushing (466 yards), and his freelance runs have become a vital part of Clemson's offense. If the Gamecocks can bring pressure with their four down linemen, that could free up Lorenzo Ward's linebackers to drop back in coverage or spy on Boyd, not allowing him to turn upfield. It may also prevent him from delivering to his playmakers with the space they want.
And Finally.... South Carolina has outscored Clemson 44-17 in the second half during its three-game winning streak. Can the Gamecocks call in their closers again Saturday?
Now that we're prepared, we hope you are as well. Our pre-game coverage begins at 4:00 p.m. EST on the Gamecock IMG Sports Network. We'll see you in Death Valley. -AD--