Five years ago, if you had told me that Carolina would have brought parity to the rivalry series with Clemson, I would have readily believed you. If you had told me, though, that Carolina would come to completely dominate this series, that I might have disagreed with. After all, after the 2008 season, Carolina had only beaten Clemson twice in the previous ten years, with Clemson often winning handily. However, Clemson hasn't even really been competitive during Carolina's recent four-game winning streak. It came nearest to beating us last season, when it led at half-time before Carolina controlled the second half and eventually pulled away for a ten-point win. Even that loss came across as embarrassing for the Tigers, when you consider that Carolina was banged up coming into the game and ran with its second-string quarterback.
What's made the run of success over Clemson particularly gratifying is that, with the exception of 2010, Clemson has been good over the past four years. That's not to say that it wouldn't be fun to see Carolina distribute a few thorough beatdowns against bad Clemson teams, but, certainly, it's pleasing to know that we're trouncing the best they can throw at us. Granted, Clemson's impressive records in 2009, 2011, and 2012 are partially a function of the struggling ACC, which, while never a power conference, has regressed mightily in recent years, with formerly successful programs like Virginia Tech becoming complete non-factors on the national scene. Clemson, though, does get credit for some solid wins in recent years, including over the ACC's only other relevant program, Florida St., and LSU in last year's Chick-fil-A Bowl. It's a measure of Carolina's rise to prominence that we've been able to beat a Clemson team that could do those things.
Speaking of the ACC, last summer our colleagues at Shakin the Southland broke down Clemson vs. USC revenue/expenditures in first and second installments. Although these numbers are now a year dated, the general narrative they tell reveals a grisly story for your friendly neighborhood Tigers fan. In large part due to the fact that SEC licensing revenues drawn from agreements with ESPN, the bowls, etc., far outstrip what the ACC is bringing in for its member institutions, USC has begun to separate itself from Clemson in the proceeds department. That's allowed USC to embark upon ambitious facilities upgrades that could make our program more attractive to talented players than Clemson's for years to come. These monies will also come in handy when it's time to assemble a new coaching staff after Spurrier retires. Our success under the Head Ball Coach, really, has come at a perfect time in the history of this rivalry. We hired Spurrier in 2005, right before the SEC brand really to take off as the behemoth it is today. While Spurrier built USC's football program, the SEC parlayed its new-found notoriety into increased revenues that have helped the conference's programs separate themselves from programs outside the conference, particularly those in the SEC's regional competitor the ACC, which has proven unable to compete in this new world of college athletics. Flush with SEC money and the national stature Spurrier has earned, USC should have some tangible advantages over Clemson in competing for coaches and players in the coming years.
As for this year's game, if Clemson is to close the gap between the two teams, it needs to do a number of things, particularly on defense. Clemson's offense should be legitimately elite, as Chad Morris returns for what will likely be his final season in Pickens, and he has plenty of talent to work with. Nuk Hopkins and Andre Ellington were great players for Clemson, but the Tigers appear well stocked at the skills positions and should be able to replace their lost production. Offensive line might be one position to keep an eye on. Clemson returns four starters on the line, including some real talents like Brandon Thomas. However, Dabo Swinney's staff hasn't always made building depth on the line a priority, and we've seen in the past that this unit has struggled late in the season as the injuries have piled up, while Carolina has done a better job of finding guys to plug in and keep the train rolling. All in all, though, this should be a prolific offense, with Tajh Boyd and company moving the football throughout the season.
Defense is the real question mark for CU. Defense has been this team's downfall the past two seasons, and Clemson will have to improve defensively if it's going to move past the "good team, bad conference" plateau its currently stuck in. The bright spot is the defensive line, certainly an important position. The Tigers showed promise up front on defense last year and return a lot of talent. The only major loss is Malliciah Goodman, who, while a physically gifted player who went in the fourth round of the NFL Draft, was inconsistent during his college career. Clemson gets the rest of the group back and has the chance to show serious strides up front. The back seven is a different story. The Tiger return some experience at these positions, but few of those players have consistently produced in big games. They also lose some players, particularly in a defensive backfield that was consistently exploited last year, including by the Gamecocks.
Another thing to note about Clemson's defense is that the CU offense's up-tempo style forces the defense to spend a lot of time on the field, particularly if the opposing team is able to run anything like a ball-control offense. This is in large part the story of last year's game against CU. Clemson's offense, whether it moved the ball or not, didn't stay on the field long each drive; Carolina's offense, on the other hand, converted third down after third down to mount long drives. We enjoyed an absolutely astounding 39:58-20:02 time-of-possession advantage in this game. Clemson's defense was clearly gassed at the end of the game, and that's not a way to win games unless you more or less put the contest away by half time.
Can Clemson's defense improve enough from last year to get results that are significantly different than the beatdowns of the past two years, particularly given that Carolina's offense should again be the smash-mouth style that gives this team fits? We'll see, but it's going to take considerable improvement. If that doesn't happen, Clemson only win unless it puts up 30 or so points against us, which simply isn't likely to happen, particularly in Columbia.
If Clemson loses, it will be interesting to see if Dabo begins to feel any heat. There seems to be something of a John Cooper situation percolating in Pickens; Dabo, like Cooper at Ohio St. in the 90s, has brought Clemson back to a level of success the program hadn't enjoyed in many years. However, Dabo, like Cooper to Michigan, loses consistently to his biggest rival. Of course, whereas Michigan routinely undermined OSU's B10 title hopes in the 90s, Carolina can't do so to Clemson, and winning ACC titles will give Dabo some capital with the CU athletics department regardless of what happens against Carolina. That said, even the spin-driven Clemson athletic culture should eventually sour on the notion that winning a weak conference is meaningful despite getting pounded each year by an in-state rival that has bigger fish to fry in the SEC. My guess is that Dabo won't feel *too* much pressure if he wins 9 or 10 games this year while losing to Carolina, but that he'll be under the microscope in 2014 if that comes to pass. That could spell disaster for Dabo, given that a lot of his offensive talent, including the coordinator who probably deserves most of the credit for Dabo's head-coaching record, are going to be gone after this season.