Every year as we approach the game against the South Carolina Gamecocks, there is always that one fan. It’s actually a lot of fans, but you might be able to make it through the week without hearing most of them, but there is always that one fan that makes it through on the sports radio call line or posts in a Facebook group you are in and brings that time-cherished conceit: “The Gamecocks aren’t really Clemson’s rival anymore. You have to actually be competitive with a team to be their rival.”

Face palm. I guess some people just need to say things like that to feel good about their fandom. For the record: everyone who says that about Clemson vs South Carolina is wrong. Flat-out wrong. It is true that some rivalries in sports are born from the success of both programs. I think a fitting example is Florida vs Tennessee. There was a solid 10-15 years when that was one of the biggest games of the year because both teams were annually vying for SEC championships, and the winner was often a player for a national championship. As both programs took steps backwards, the rivalry declined. It is still an annual conference game, but it doesn’t hold the same weight as it used to, not even for the fanbases. Florida fans look towards Georgia and Florida State, while Tennessee dreams of a day they can defeat Alabama. Older rivalries fueled by proximity.

The Clemson-South Carolina matchup means the world to the fans of the two schools. There have been some seasons in the last few years that Clemson was hands-down the better team, and there wasn’t much doubt that Clemson would be victorious. It’s hard for a fanbase to get super hyped when there is little chance of winning. We saw a different Gamecock Nation this past week, and it wasn’t only because Clemson had not had the year most expected. SC earned their sixth win to become bowl eligible against an Auburn team that had Alabama on the ropes Saturday. Carolina may not be ready to cross into plus territory yet, but they aren’t a bad team either. They batted average this year.

Most Clemson fans were realistic about this game, where the Gamecocks stood this year and where the Tigers stood this year. Most can see Clemson held a talent advantage, but consistency has been a major problem for the Tigers this year, so it was a major question mark whether Clemson would play at the same level that they did against Wake Forest. If the team that showed up against UConn walked into Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday, Clemson would be in trouble. Fortunately, the better version of the Tigers showed up, and Clemson fans were able to enjoy a 30-0 shutout of the Gamecocks, and I realized at the end of the night while the people who want to downplay the significance of this rivalry really are out of touch, it is true that I had not felt this much joy from a victory over the Gamecocks in several years. I think the threat of them beating Clemson hasn’t been real to me since 2014. Even in 2015 & 2018 when the Gamecocks played better than expected, I knew Clemson was better and would hold them at bay.

The Tigers finish the regular season at 9-3, with an opportunity to reach the 10-win mark with a bowl game victory. It will be a big accomplishment for this team if they can get to double-digit wins, considering how many young, inexperienced players played important roles for the team this season, and how many of them ended up getting injured and missed significant time this season. There has been plenty to be critical of this season, but there is no way we can objectively call a 9-3 regular season bad, or even average. It is true that Clemson, as always, plays several ACC teams, and the ACC just wasn’t good this year. Of the four ranked teams that Clemson played, they only won against one of them, but the list of teams that Clemson did defeat ended up being better than most thought. Clemson ended up with the 12th toughest strength of schedule, and the 17th best strength of record, per ESPN. That’s a bit surprising, considering that outside of Wake Forest, none of the teams Clemson beat in the ACC finished better than 4-4 in conference. It is a testimony to the reality of most teams in most conferences – there aren’t as many good teams and good schedules as we perceive. Most teams don’t have more than 3-4 opportunities a year to beat teams that will be ranked at the end of the season. As fans, we always say “There is no way that team is a Top 10 team!” but then when we tally up the number of teams that we think should be in the Top 10, the tally is usually less than ten.

We also can’t go overboard the other way. This team wasn’t great by any stretch of the imagination, at any point in time. We can say this defense was great. No other team in the nation held Georgia’s offense to three points. Clemson finished the season second in scoring defense behind Georgia. The offensive struggles were more than enough to take the Clemson team out of the ‘great’ conversation. The offense was bad enough at one point that this team was almost in ‘bad’ territory, despite the defensive success. Ultimately, the offense improved enough that we can say this team was ‘good’. I would go as far as saying their final two performances of the regular season were very good, especially the ground game. Will Shipley & Kobe Pace were fantastic in the back half of the season, and with Phil Mafah in the mix, the future is bright for the Tiger backfield.

While Clemson found success in Columbia, they won’t be heading to Charlotte for the ACC championship game. The Tigers needed both North Carolina and Boston College to get wins against NC State and Wake Forest respectively, but neither found the win. Wake will represent the Atlantic Division against Pitt in Charlotte. That means Clemson will be turning their focus to a bowl game, the first time since 2014 that it won’t be a bowl game hosting a CFP semi-final. Last time that happened, the Tigers played the Oklahoma Sooners in the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando. There is a chance they will play in that same bowl this year, which is now called the Cheez-It Bowl. Other options include the Gator, Duke’s Mayo, and Holiday Bowls, but before they head to the bowl, they will have a heavy two weeks of recruiting. They will host at least a few official visitors, including a couple high profile recruits in Trevor Etienne and (hopefully) Antonio Williams. The early signing period begins on December 15th, but this may be a year the Tigers continue recruiting hard well into the new year. Multiple players aren’t planning to announce or sign in December, and the coaching carousel will cause several recruits to re-evaluate their positions before making final decisions.

There will be a lot of opportunities to look ahead to next year, but for now Clemson Nation, lets enjoy another year as the state champions of South Carolina. Cheers!

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