Previewing Clemson at South Carolina: Q & A with Shakin' the Southland

In an effort to prove that blogging can bring sworn enemies together on a plane of peace and amity, Shakin' the Southland and I got together for a little meeting of the minds to discuss the big game this weekend. (My answers to his questions are forthcoming.)

1. What are your thoughts on C. J. Spiller and the Heisman?

CJ Spiller may be the greatest all around player in Clemson history and has done everything that he can do to help this team win.  Unfortunately, Clemson's loss to Maryland coupled with lacking rushing numbers really hurt Spiller's chances.  I really wish that Spiller would have been able to pad his numbers with more carries against MTSU (4 carries 12 yards) and Coastal (5 carries 27 yards). 
 
When you look at all Spiller has accomplished this season while being hurt for the majority of the season, his accomplishments from week to week are unbelievable.  CJ is the best all-around player I have ever seen.  Long and the short of it, CJ Spiller is deserving of the Heisman (and is the most valuable and most all-around complete player in the sport), but I unfortunately don't think that he will win the award.

2. Dabo Swinney has already managed to achieve the goal that so consistently eluded Tommy Bowden: Dabo has won an Atlantic Division title and a berth in the ACC Title Game. What is Dabo doing better than his predecessor, or is this season's success just attributable to the stars aligning?
 
Coach Swinney does quite a few things better than CTB did.  First and foremost, this team is excited and ready each and every week.  Bowden repeatedly made comments that his job was not to get the team excited to play football.  Swinney has a more emotional fire, and challenges this team constantly.  It is apparent to me that this Clemson team plays much harder under Swinney than it did for Bowden. 
 
Second, Swinney has instilled a much more aggressive attitude for this team.  Swinney removed OC Rob Spence and DC Vic Koenning and replaced them with Billy Napier and Kevin Steele.  Spence's offense, which is rather complex, relied on a series of short passes and screens was replaced with a simplified offense designed to take shots and get the ball in playmakers' (Spiller and Ford) hands.  After the UMd game, Swinney and Napier further simplified the Clemson offense and incorporated the TE's much more.  Defensively, Clemson under Koenning played a lot of umbrella coverage and was not aggressive.  Steele has shown multiple looks, installed more blitz packages, and plays a lot more man/man press coverage.  Clemson's ability to create more pressure coupled with good secondary play has created lots of turnovers and 3 and out series for the Tiger defense. 
 
Finally, I think that the players can relate much better to Swinney than Bowden.  Swinney personally recruited a large portion of this team, and the players have a tight bond with Swinney (see Spiller turning down entry to the draft last season to return to CU for another season).  Swinney is a little younger, more energetic, and looks to be more in-tune with the players.

3. Tell us a little about how this coaching staff has managed to put together an offense that is so much more consistently competent than last year's despite having to go with a freshman quarterback and without former tailback James Davis?

Freshman QB Kyle Parker has all the tools to be really good, he just lacks experience.  KP now is better than Cullen Harper was at the end of last season.  Also, Clemson has utilized a solid stable of backs (led by Spiller) throughout the season.  While I don't know that Ellington/Harper are better than Davis, they certainly provide good depth at the RB position.  In defense to both Harper and Davis, I do think that both players would be better if they were on this team as opposed to last season because this team is better fundamentally and strategically. 
 
We wrote about differences we expected from the Spence offense to the Napier/Swinney offense in length before the season at http://www.shakinthesouthland.com/2009/08/dabospence-elaboration.html .  I feel this prognosis is still correct.  Clemson has a simpler offense this season.  The offense tries to exploit defenses utilizing Clemson's best players.  After the UMd game, CU further simplified things and incorporated the TE's more, as TE Michael Palmer is the best pass catcher and route runner on the team.  Clemson is better up front than last season and is not afraid to stretch defenses with Jacoby Ford's speed.  Consequently, I believe that this offense is better because it is more fundamentally sound, tougher, not as complex, and is more strategically focused than one year ago.

4. Clemson seems to be becoming DE U. What's the story there? How do you so consistently keep your roster stocked with such great ends?
Both Sapp and Bowers are from Bamberg and were highly rated coming out of HS.  Goodman is from Florence.  Clemson has done a great job identifying in-state talent and keeping these guys from leaving the state.  Andre Branch (Richmond, Va) has provided some nice depth for us this year.  Kevin Alexander has been a solid player his entire CU career both from the end position and at LB.  Kourtnei Brown, a JR from Charlotte, is redshirting this season and will provide more depth for the next two seasons.
 
Clemson has drawn such talent to the school not only by utilizing talented recruiters (Swinney, Napier, Rumph for the guys mentioned above), but also by presenting past successes.  Putting Gaines Adams and Phillip Merlin in the pros makes recruiting a lot easier. 

5. How on earth did you manage to hold a pretty decent BC team to just over 50 yards? That's unbelievable! Can Clemson's D play like that against Carolina?
 
Clemson's defense is probably the best and hardest hitting out of Tigertown since Coach Ford's recruits were still competing.  That being said, Clemson is fortunate to have a very good and aggressive defensive coordinator in Kevin Steele.  Steele is great at putting together personnel and blitz packages that exploit and confuse offenses.  This is the main reason for the early season success against BC.  However, you need to also remember that BC opened with two inferior (Northeastern and Kent State ) opponents with a relatively young team and a QB controversy going into the Clemson game.  Thus, Clemson had better (and more experienced) players, a fantastic strategy, and caught BC at the right time of the year.
 
South Carolina has not been consistent running the football all year.  If the Gamecocks become one-dimensional, Clemson should be able to utilize its superior line to get to Garcia.  I think that SC would be more successful running three-step timing routes than hoping Garcia can scramble and make things happen moving around inside and outside the pocket.  Clemson has agile and very fast big men who have maintained containment for most of the season.  Also, Clemson has some ball-hawks in the secondary, particularly DeAndre McDaniel.  If Garcia gets sloppy with the ball, CU will make him pay.
 
I am a little concerned about Alshon Jeffery and Tori Gurley because of Clemson's aggressive defensive strategy.  Both of these guys have a distinct height advantage over both Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor.  If SC can get these guys on an island, I expect a few jump balls to be thrown in each player's (specifically Jeffery's) direction.  Throwing these passes out of a 3-step drop will severely offset Clemson's advantage up front. 
 
The one thing that Clemson has done well all year is make adjustments.  Consequently, if South Carolina is going to have success offensively, I would expect to see it before half.

6. Tell us about what this rivalry means to Clemson fans from your point of view.

This rivalry is a big game for the simple fact that there is not a day that passes in this state that Clemson and South Carolina football are not discussed.  I think fan's passion about this game has made it a little more important to Clemson's program over the past few years because coaches (Bowden nearly every year since '03 and Swinney last season) were fighting to retain their jobs, and a win over the in-state rival really helps this cause.  This game is important for in-state recruiting and for the boosters, as players want to play for winners and boosters want to donate to winners.
 
Because each resident of the state is either a Clemson fan or a SC fan, everyone knows something about both teams.  In fact, most fans make it a point to watch not only their own team's game each week but the rival's also.  Such intimacy with the opponent increases the emotion involved all season long until the November rivalry game.
 
We have kind of gotten used to winning a lot of these games, but that does not change the fact that this one is important to everyone in the state.  Coach Ford had a tough time getting over the '87 game, and every now and then you still see a "I Turned Danny In" bumper sticker.  Cockfan still complains about the 2000 rendition and the numbers 63 and 17 mean something completely different to residents of this state than they do to the rest of the country.  So this game is really an excuse for one side to talk trash to the other, and neither party wants to be on the losing end of that one.

7. Give us a prediction. How will the game go down, who will win, and how confident are you in your prognosis?

I think that this one will get off to a fast start.  I fully expect USC to throw the book at Clemson's defense Saturday.  I expect SC to do some things similar to what UVa did in the first half, with some single wing/wildcat plays, reverse passes, etc.  I think this thing goes into half, knotted at 14 each.  Steele makes necessary adjustments at half and CU wins 28-24.  I look for a strong showing from the USC defense, but see Spiller, Ellington, and Harper wearing USC down and gashing this defense for large chunk of yards as the game progresses.
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