Roll Tigers. War Cocks. Why hasn’t South Carolina come close to the Yellowhammer State’s three-year domination of college football’s crown? Dabo Swinney and Kevin Steele might have an idea, though Steele has since been disappeared like a South American political enemy. Mike Shula and Cam Newton might know, across state lines in Charlotte. To win, you’ve got to really want it, and feel like you deserve it, like a Lexington County pol with video poker money.
And sometimes you need the right combination of coaches and players, something boldly illustrated in ESPNU’s replay of the 2012 Orange Bowl on Friday, when Steele and his players appeared to evaporate in front of West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen and his Viking raiders.
So, perhaps trying to marry a Cam Newton offense with a Nick Saban defense was a bit too much of a Frankenstein’s monster for Swinney and his crew to handle last year. But, plug in a defense that won’t give up 70 or blow apart against the Marylands of the world, and there’s reason to believe the Tigers can compete to defend its ACC title.
After all, Clemson is purported to have the best wide-outs in the game. Athlon says, “There might not be a better collection of offensive skill players anywhere in the nation than at Clemson. The pass-catching lawfirm of Watkins, Hopkins, Bryant, Brown, Humphries and Peake is as deep a collection of wide receivers as there in America. When quarterback Tajh Boyd steps to the line, he has to be giddy with anticipation when he sees the weapons lined up next to him.”
Last year, the Tigers averaged scoring 33 points and allowing 29. Brent Venables has been brought in from Oklahoma to put the latter number somewhere in the range of acceptable. Swinney told Sports Illustrated, “He’s been awesome. He brings a ton of experience, knowledge and energy to the defense. It has been a smooth transition and he’s been a great fit for our players, staff and Clemson. Hopefully we will be a defense that isn’t going to make a lot of mistakes. Hopefully we will be a sound, consistent, attacking defense that tackles well and minimizes big plays and makes people have to earn things and go the distance.”
To the discerning reader, that might be two hopefullys too much. But after hiring away Steele from Saban and expecting a top-20 defense, and getting the 81st-ranked defense in points allowed, it’s understandable why Swinney restrained in his endorsement.
Of course, to go the distance, Clemson will need to get past South Carolina, which has its eyes on a conference championship as well.
Andy Staples writes in SI, “Spurrier had limited success in his first few seasons in Columbia, but his teams began making school history after he scrapped his beloved Fun ‘n’ Gun and switched to a run-heavy zone-read offense that hogged the ball and allowed his stingy, athletic defense to rest between possessions. Though the schemes differ, the underlying philosophies of defensive dominance and offensive ball control are reminiscent of Saban’s model at Alabama.”
But Columbia hasn’t turned into Tuscaloosa East, and the Head Ball Coach hasn’t imitated Saban’s “Vladimir Putin of college football” routine. Steve Spurrier is, as he says, doing the best with what he has. You know he’d love to have a Tajh Boyd and a fleet of receivers like at Clemson. But these aren’t the players he has or has been able to get. The Gamecocks are tailored to their advantages, and those advantages are pretty good.
Facing facts, the SEC East is the same as it ever was, at least in the post-Urban Meyer era. Carolina will have to beat Georgia, then survive against LSU and Arkansas. An SEC Championship Game spot has moved from the realm of possible to expected. The only matter is if USC can handle the best the SEC West has to throw at it.
Spurrier wants it: “One reason I love being at South Carolina is that we have opportunities to achieve things for the first time. Some people would rather be at a place where you can win it all every year. Schools like Alabama, LSU and Florida. Once something has already been accomplished, it’s neat to do it again, but it’s not the first time ever. I look forward to doing some more first-time-ever things at South Carolina.”
To quote the Nature Boy, “To be the best, you got to beat the best. WOO!” Carolina has the potential to do that this season. Whether it does or not is up to the team.
by J.L. Mann Cromer, Jr., who served as the only true independent member of the South Carolina General Assembly from 1990-1998. Currently, he is a general practice attorney in Columbia, S.C., concentrating in probate and estate planning, criminal defense and personal injury law.