Welcome to the Palmetto Bowl edition of What We Are Hearing!
You’d have to go back quite a while to find a year in which this annual grudge match was so lopsided for either side according to Las Vegas. The line is currently 26 points in favor of the Tigers, and that might even be giving the Gamecocks too much credit, given the carnage the Tigers have left in their wake over the last couple months. In the last 6 games, the Tigers have outscored their opponents 302-49, and those 6 opponents are 33-32, so it’s not like the competition has been terrible.
The Tigers, of course, are going for their fifth straight win over the Gamecocks, which would be their longest winning streak in the series since they won their seventh straight in 1940. A win would also give Dabo a winning record against his arch-rival—he is currently 5-5 against the Gamecocks—and it would mean Dabo has a winning record against every team he’s played at least twice, with the exception of Alabama.
Before I dive into the Palmetto Bowl, I want to remind you that Clemson Basketball moved up to No.16 in the AP Poll this week. They got off to a 5-0 start for just the second time under Brad Brownell, but they lost to a hot-shooting Creighton team in the Cayman Islands Classic Championship on Wednesday night, so they will drop a few spots in the rankings next week. It was the Tigers’ third game in as many days. The Tigers are back in action Monday night when they host Nebraska in Littlejohn, so be sure to check back here for live play-by-play, coverage and post-game interviews!
On to the Palmetto Bowl…..
Clemson is 69-42-4 all-time against South Carolina. The Tigers have beaten the Gamecocks more than any other team….Clemson is going for its fifth straight win in the series, which would be the Tigers’ longest win streak since 1940. The Tigers won their seventh straight that year, which is the longest streak for either school…..A win Saturday would give Wilkins, Bryant, Hyatt, Renfrow, Huegel and the rest of the senior class their 52nd win, extending their school and ACC records. Last year’s senior class set the record with 50 wins. Clemson is just the second school ever to win 51 games over a four-year span, joining Alabama, which accomplished the feat twice and holds the record at 53 games….A win would give the Tigers 100 wins this decade, joining Alabama and Ohio State as the only teams to do so.....Dabo is 11-0 for the second time in the last four years. It had previously only been done twice: by Frank Howard in 1948 and Danny Ford in 1981….Clemson has won a school-record 27 consecutive Saturday games. That is the longest such streak in the nation….Clemson is 33-2 in its last 35 ACC games…. Clelin Ferrell has 10.5 sacks this season, which is 3rd in the Power Five. He is also 3rd in the Power Five for active career sacks....The Clemson defense has not created a turnover in the last two games after 17 straight games with at least one turnover. It had 7 interceptions in the 5 games previous to Boston College after no interceptions in the first 4....Sophomore Travis Etienne passed Sammy Watkins last week for #8 on the Clemson career touchdown list with 31…..The Tigers have not allowed a first-half touchdown in 13 of their last 16 games….Hunter Renfrow has caught a pass in 39 straight games, breaking Artavis Scott’s Clemson record. He needs one touchdown to tie Jacoby Ford, Derrick Hamilton and Terrance Roulhac with 16 career TD's, 10th on the all-time Clemson list…Clemson and Alabama are tied for the most consecutive weeks in the AP Top 10 at 55 weeks. Next is Georgia at 24….Clemson has been ranked in the top 4 of the College Football Playoff Rankings for 22 consecutive weeks since the Tigers were #1 in the first release of 2015....
SOUTH CAROLINA SYNOPSIS
The Gamecocks had big expectations coming into the season, and it’s safe to say the season has been a disappointment to most of their fans. Many were expecting the Gamecocks to finish at least second in the SEC East and even challenge UGA for the division title. However, they were blown at home by the Bulldogs, lost to Kentucky and Florida in the division and even lost at home against Texas A&M from the SEC West. Their 4-4 record in conference could be even worse, though, having barely beat Missouri and Tennessee at home. The pessimism of the South Carolina fan base going into the Palmetto Bowl is probably as high as it’s been in decades. Even in 2015 after losing to The Citadel at home, many thought they had a puncher’s chance with the home field advantage. And they had some momentum going into the 2016 game when Bentley was a freshman, but that ended up in a 56-7 drubbing. The Tigers have won the last two meetings by a combined score of 90-17. It was 34-0 going into the 4th quarter in Columbia last year, and most of Williams-Brice Stadium was Orange by the end of the 3rd. The Gamecocks are 6-4 overall and blew a 17-point lead late in the 3rd quarter at Florida two weeks ago. Last week, it was the SEC’s annual “Let’s play cream puffs before our rivals” week, so the Gamecocks boosted their confidence in a 49-9 home win over Chattanooga.
The heart and soul of this team is obviously third-year starter Jake Bentley. After an overachieving 9-4 sophomore season, many were pointing to Bentley once again as one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC and across college football, but the numbers didn’t support the hype in my opinion. Bentley was 35th in completion percentage last season (Kelly Bryant was 10th) and 46th in passing yards. He only had 18 touchdowns against 12 interceptions last season and rushed for a grand total of 85 yards. Kelly Bryant had more rushing yards than that in 3 different games! Bentley was also sacked 29 times; 74 quarterbacks took fewer sacks. I will say that Bentley has always had moxie and knows how to win, but I believe he is a very mediocre quarterback from a talent standpoint. This season, Bentley’s numbers are a little better but still pretty average. He has completed 65.1% of his passes for 2,244 yards with 19 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. He has rushed for just 124 yards and 2 touchdowns, averaging 2.4 yards per carry. In Bentley’s defense, one of the big storylines for the Gamecocks this season has been the dropped passes. There have been countless passes Bentley has put on the numbers that have been dropped, and it’s probably cost them at least one game. Bentley’s numbers would certainly look better otherwise.
As most of you know, the biggest play-maker for the Gamecocks is preseason All-American Deebo Samuel, who didn’t play against the Tigers last year due to a broken leg. The 6’0, 210-pound senior from Inman, SC is by far the most dangerous player the Tigers will have to worry about on Saturday night, and they will have to account for him at all times—both on offense and in the return game. The Tigers allowed touchdown returns in back-to-back games against Louisville and Boston College—one on punt return and one on a kickoff—so the coverage unit will have to be ready. Fortunately, B.T. Potter has been able to get a lot of touchbacks this season, and hopefully the Tigers won’t be punting to Deebo too often. Samuel has 48 catches for 639 yards and 6 touchdowns this season. He also has a 90-yard kickoff return touchdown. He’s only rushed 8 times for 26 yards. He had a huge game against the Tigers as a freshman in 2015, with 5 catches for 104 yards and a touchdown.
The other big weapon at the receiver position for the Gamecocks is 6’3, 220-pound junior Bryan Edwards (#89). The Conway native has 42 catches this season and actually leads the team in reception yards with 659. He is also tied with Samuel for the team with 6 touchdowns.
In the running game, 6’0, 215-pound junior Rico Dowdle (#5) leads the Gamecocks with 100 rushes for 498 yards and 4 touchdowns, averaging nearly 5 yards per carry. Dowdle remains a big question mark for this game after suffering a fractured bone in his leg against Tennessee a month ago. He had just one rush against Ole Miss, two rushes the following week at Florida and didn’t play last week against Chattanooga. I am expecting him to play on Saturday night, but how effective he will be able to be remains to be seen. Dowdle rushed 14 times for 140 yards and a touchdown in the hard-fought Tennessee win before the injury. Dowdle has 11 catches for 111 yards and a touchdown this season.
Behind Dowdle is 5’10, 195-pound junior A.J. Turner (#25), who led the Gamecocks in rushing last season with just 539 yards. The Gamecocks were ranked #111 in rushing offense last season, averaging just 122 yards per game. Turner has just 294 yards and 2 touchdowns this season but is averaging 6.4 yards per carry, best on the team. He also has 8 catches for 75 yards and 2 touchdowns. 6’0, 219-pound junior Ty’Son Williams (#27) from Sumter has 319 yards and 4 touchdowns, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. He has been battling injury but is expected to play on Saturday. Finally, 6’1, 220-pound freshman Deshaun Fenwick (#14) made his debut last week against Chattanooga. The Florida native averaged 6.6 yards per carry for 112 yards and a touchdown.
The Gamecocks had one of the best tight ends in the nation last season in Hayden Hurst, who was drafted with the last pick of the first round by the Baltimore Ravens. 6’1, 229-pound senior K.C. Crosby replaced Hurst at tight end, but he has just 10 catches for 94 yards and no touchdowns.
South Carolina is #66 in the nation in rushing offense (167.8 yards/game), #34 in pass offense (262 yards/game), #46 in total offense (429.8 yards/game) and #37 in scoring offense (32.8 points/game). The Gamecocks are #39 on 3rd down, converting 42.74% of the time. They are just #63 in red zone offense, scoring 84.78% of the time. They are even worse at getting in the end zone, scoring touchdowns in just 60.87% of their red zone trips, which is #78 in the nation.
Defensively, the Gamecocks are a pale reflection of what they once were in the glory days of the Steve Spurrier era. Junior LB T.J. Brunson (#6) is probably their best player on that side of the ball. The local product from Columbia is leading the team with 4 sacks. The biggest loss from last season for the Gamecocks was linebacker Skai Moore. He was first-team All-SEC last year and the unquestioned leader of the team. The Gamecocks have just 19 sacks on the season, which is tied for #94 in the nation. Senior CB Rashad Fenton (#16) leads the secondary with 3 interceptions.
South Carolina is ranked #56 in pass defense (219.8 yards/game), #92 in rush defense (190 yards/game), #78 in total defense (410 yards/game) and #63 in scoring defense (26.7 points/game). They are respectable on 3rd down, allowing conversions 35.82% of the time, which is 38th in the nation. The Gamecocks are #49 in red zone defense, allowing scores 81.6% of the time. However, they are much better at keeping opponents out of the end zone, allowing touchdowns just 53% of the time in the red zone.
The biggest strength of the Gamecocks this season has been their offensive line. It is a veteran group, and they have allowed just 1.5 sacks per game, which is tied for #23 in the nation. To me, that is the most intriguing matchup to watch. There is a gaping statistical chasm between the two teams in just about every other category, but it will be interesting to see if the Tigers’ vaunted defensive front can get to Bentley often on Saturday night. The Tigers are #2 in the nation in sacks and have averaged almost 5 sacks per game over the last 4 contests, so something will have to give on Saturday. Bentley is a big quarterback at 6’4, 225 pounds, and he knows how to move around the pocket and get rid of the ball without taking a sack. In fact, that has been one of Bentley’s biggest areas of improvement this season.
Dowdle and Williams aren’t the only Gamecocks that have been battling injury this season. It has been a chronic problem for the Gamecocks all season—particularly in the secondary, where they had to start 4 freshmen at one point in the season. Even Jake Bentley has played with an injured knee through a couple games this season. Corner Jamyest Williams, who the Tigers recruited out of Grayson High School, where he played for Clemson Safeties Coach Mickey Conn, is among those who will not play on Saturday. Freshman starting safety Jaycee Horn (#7) has been injured but is expected to play. True freshman DT Josh Belk—who transferred from Clemson last spring as an early enrollee—has dealt with an ankle injury all season but finally saw the field last week against Chattanooga. So you can expect a chorus of boos in Death Valley when he comes into the game.
Sophomore kicker Parker White is 13-15 on field goals this season. He is 2-3 over 40 yards with a long of 42 and has not attempted from 50 yards or more. South Carolina gives up 56 penalty yards per game, which is #73 in the nation. The Gamecocks are #90 in turnover margin at -0.3 per game.
The Tigers are in as good a place as I’ve ever seen them—both physically and mentally. Dabo has more senior and junior leadership than he’s ever had as head coach, and it’s a big reason this senior class set a new school and ACC record last week with their 51st win. Alabama is the only other school to have won as many games over a four-year span.
The biggest news of the week was obviously the status of Hunter Renfrow, one of the most beloved Tigers in program history. When he didn’t get up from the field last week after diving for a catch, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard Death Valley so silent. The crowd seemed astonished to see him fail to make the diving catch like he’s made so many times before. The shock turned quickly to concern when he didn’t get up right away. Renfrow’s head hit hard on the turf, and he’s been evaluated for a concussion all week. Dabo told us on Sunday night that he wasn’t sure it was a concussion, and he has been noncommittal in the days since about whether Renfrow will play for sure on Saturday. However, Dabo did tell us on Wednesday night that Renfrow has practiced and looks good, so I will be shocked if he doesn’t start in his final game in Death Valley. Renfrow set the school record for starts by a Clemson WR last week and also broke Artavis Scott’s record for consecutive games with a catch. Thank goodness he was able to make a catch early, before the injury!
It’s going to be an emotional night for Renfrow, Wilkins, Bryant, Ferrell, Joseph, Hyatt, Huegel and all of the seniors that will be playing their last time in Death Valley. They had their curtain call last week, running down The Hill individually, one at a time, but Kendall Joseph told me he will have even more goosebumps as he touches Howard’s Rock one last time before a game.
Despite the 29-point win over Duke last week, the Tigers had a taste of what the Gamecocks have been afflicted with all season, with 9 dropped passes in the game. 7 of the drops were by the receivers, one was by Etienne, who has had issues catching the football all season, and one was by freshman tight end Braden Galloway. The only receivers who seemed immune were true freshman Justyn Ross and true sophomore Tee Higgins. That had to be frustrating for Trevor Lawrence, but he didn’t show it. One of the drops was by true freshman Derion Kendrick on a beautiful throw by Lawrence. Kendrick redeemed himself later with a phenomenal catch, but the one he dropped should have been a 50-yard touchdown. Despite the drops, Lawrence still managed to go 21-38 for 251 yards and 2 touchdowns. His running ability has gradually become a bigger part of the offense over the past couple games. He rushed for his first touchdown at Boston College on a well-executed bootleg, and he had his longest run last week for 19 yards. I asked Dabo about that, and he said that they definitely need for Trevor to run the ball in order for this offense to function at optimal level.
After rushing for just 81 yards last week, Etienne has basically fallen off ESPN’s Heisman rankings. However, he averaged 9 yards per carry against Duke and scored 2 touchdowns, tying Wayne Gallman, James Davis and Lester Brown for the Clemson single-season record. He is just 371 yards short of breaking Gallman’s single-season yardage record of 1,527 from 2015. Etienne is #1 in the Power Five for rushing touchdowns, tied for 2nd in the nation. He is #4 in the Power Five for yards per carry at 8.51. His true freshman teammate, Lyn-J Dixon, is now #1 in the nation at 10.49 yards per carry!
The Tigers are the most complete team in the nation right now in my opinion, and the statistics back it up. They are #1 in scoring defense (12.1 points/game), #1 in yards per play allowed, #2 in total defense (254.4 yards/game), #2 in sacks and #3 on 3rd down. They were tied with Alabama for #1 in scoring defense last week but moved ahead of the Tide this week, thanks to The Citadel hanging 17 points on Alabama in Tuscaloosa! The Tigers are #5 in scoring offense (44.7 points/game) and #7 in total offense (520.5 yards/game).
As with just about every other game this season, this one shouldn’t be close on paper. Sometimes you can throw the stats out the window with rivalry games, but I don’t believe that to be the case here. The Tigers may have a lot more riding on this game than their rivals, but the fact that the Gamecocks are staring at a fifth straight loss at the hands of their nemesis means that all the pressure is on them. I remember when the script was flipped, and the Tigers were the losers of four straight in this series. I believe—and it was confirmed talking to Dabo—that the Tigers had the better team in 2012 and 2013, but they were pressing so hard, because they wanted to end the losing streak so badly, that they made mistakes and lost. Now Bentley and the Gamecocks are in that boat. No player on the Clemson roster knows what it’s like to lose to these guys. In fact, Kendall Joseph has the rare opportunity to go 5-0 against the Gamecocks because he redshirted in 2014.
As bad as the Gamecocks’ run defense has been this season, the Tigers should be able to run the ball at will, and Trevor Lawrence should be able to take advantage of an inexperienced secondary. He will have plenty of time to sit in the pocket because the Gamecocks don’t have a prolific pass rush, and the Tigers have allowed just one sack in the last four games.
If you’re a Clemson fan, the only things you should really be worried about is whether the Tigers can come out of the game injury-free and avoid any mischief like the bench-clearing brawl we saw in 2004. That kept the Tigers out of a bowl for the only time in the last 20 years, and the Tigers had a 20-point lead when the fight broke out. I asked Jeff Scott on Monday whether they talk to the players about maintaining their composure if and when things get chippie on the field. He said there is plenty of leadership and maturity on this team, and they have managed to walk away from those situations all season, but he also said they will mention it to some of the younger players to make sure they keep their cool.
The only other question I am really curious about is whether the Tigers’ defense can finally get that shutout that has eluded them all season. It would be It would be the first shutout by either team since the Tigers won 45-0 in 1989. The Tigers have not allowed an offensive touchdown in the last two games and have not allowed a first-quarter touchdown all season. They also haven’t allowed a first-half touchdown in 13 of their last 16 games!
I won’t predict a shutout because I don’t want to jinx it, but the Tigers may set a new record for largest margin of victory in the series. It was Dabo's 49th birthday on Tuesday, and that would be a heck of a gift for him! The Tigers go 12-0 for the fourth time in school history and the second time in the last four years as they set their sites on Pitt and the ACC Championship!
The Prowl toward a 4th consecutive ACC Title, a 4th consecutive College Football Playoff and 3rd National Title continues…..
CLEMSON 63 South Carolina 9