After South Carolina's fifth-straight win over the arch-rival Clemson Tigers, Connor Shaw had this to say:
"It’s like blood in the water when we play these guys," said Shaw, who threw a touchdown pass and rushed for a touchdown. "We have respect for them, and they’re a good team. But I don’t know how they would do if they had to play in our league, just the grind of the SEC.
Although SEC money is certainly a factor in our program's current dominance over Clemson, I'm a bit hesitant to overstate the role of conference affiliation. However, Shaw's general sentiment is correct. In this series, Carolina has taken on the identity of the hunter, Clemson that of the hunted.
Part of what's helped Carolina become more successful against Clemson is that we've substantially increased the amount of talent in the program over the past several years. Carolina lagged behind most of the SEC in talent in the 1990s. Lou Holtz began changing that during his tenure, but while Holtz signed what at the time looked like some good classes, many of the big-time prospects he brought in didn't pan out for various reasons. Clemson generally dominated Carolina up front during most of the Holtz era, and the results were predictable. Spurrier has continued to recruit better than the historical norm at Carolina, including top 10 classes in 2007 and 2009. What's more, Spurrier and his staff have done a better job of bringing Carolina up to speed with Clemson in the trenches. Since 2009, Carolina has improved substantially along both lines. Another part of the equation has been that Carolina has brought in some game-changing, All-American-caliber players such as Stephon Gilmore, Marcus Lattimore, and Jadeveon Clowney. More generally, it seems that our coaches have done a better job of developing diamonds in the rough.
Does increased talent explain a five-game winning streak, though? Not likely. While Carolina has caught up to Clemson on the recruiting trail, the Tigers themselves are recruiting as well as ever. It's not like Clemson's roster is composed of a bunch of scrubs. One might question whether Clemson recruits as well up front as we do, but Clemson is a talented football team. Indeed, while from 2009-2011 Carolina dominated Clemson with a distinct advantage in the trenches, the past two years have been different. In 2012, the game looked quite even up front at times, but Carolina won because Dylan Thompson made some big third-down conversions late in the game and Clemson had no answer for Jadeveon Clowney on the pass rush. In 2013, Clemson arguably won most of the battles up front by shutting down Mike Davis and running the ball well itself, but the Gamecocks' offense was consistently able to pick up tough yards with the QB draw and the Gamecocks' defense forced some timely takeaways.
This is to say that even when Clemson has appeared to have the personnel to end the streak, the Gamecocks have emerged victorious. Why? Carolina has a mental edge over Clemson right now. Several factors play into this edge. First of all, as Shakin the Southland's Figurefour pointed out in our recent Q&A, the Gamecocks have a significantly better strength and conditioning program than Clemson. Good S&C helps a team realize its physical potential, but it also provides mental fortitude. Off-season workouts are where players learn to push their bodies to the absolute limits, which builds mental as well as physical toughness. You have to believe your body can go hard one more play in order to do it, regardless of whether your body is capable. The teams that get the most out of off-season sessions are going to be more likely to work through a challenging season without caving after getting punched in the mouth a few times. The difference between USC and CU S&C has a lot to do with why Carolina, long known for late-season swoons, now seems to peak late in the season each year, whereas Clemson peaks in September.
Another factor that may be making a difference is that Spurrier and his staff have not only increased the talent in the program, but they've done so by locking down the state's best players. In 2009, according to 247 Sports, Carolina got five of the state's 10 best to Clemson's three. In 2010, we got four to Clemson's two. In 2011, we got six to Clemson's three. Clemson got four to our two in 2012. In 2013, we got three to Clemson two. Currently, South Carolina has verbal commitments from Shaq Davidson, Donnell Stanley, and Kevin Crosby, the third, fourth, and seventh-best players in the state according to 247. The fifth-best player, Dexter Wideman, is expected to swap to Carolina from FSU before signing day. Clemson has commitments from the eighth- and ninth-best players. The Tigers have continued to recruit well overall by going out of state, which we've also done when needed. However, stockpiling our roster with the best players who grew up in South Carolina surely makes a difference against the Tigers. These are the players most likely to care about the rivalry and to put an extra emphasis on playing well in the game.
Lastly, I would speculate that Dabo Swinney's player's-coach mentality places Clemson at a disadvantage. Swinney is a coach who tells players and fans what they want to hear, overrating Clemson's successes and making excuses for its failures. Teams often take on the identity of their coaching staff, and that seems to be the case with Clemson, whose players seem incapable of the kind of self-reflection necessary to motivate the hard work needed to elevate themselves. Tajh Boyd's comment that he felt Clemson was better than Carolina after last Saturday's game comes to mind. I suspect that Swinney's program doesn't coach up talent as well as ours because the kinds of players who find Clemson appealing are the kinds who like to read their own press clippings as opposed to working on addressing their flaws. On the other hand, Spurrier has instituted a culture of expecting true greatness and calling anything else what it is, failure. Our program has adopted Spurrier's identity by becoming a hard-working team that doesn't make excuses and that's constantly working to improve.
Obviously, the streak will end eventually, perhaps next year when we travel to Clemson. However, considering that the difference in our coaching staffs is responsible for two of the three factors mentioned above and that our recruiting should continue to benefit from our improved status and the SEC's clout, there's good reason to believe that we'll continue to dominate the series as long as Spurrier and Swinney remain head coaches. The long-term future of the rivalry is harder to determine, but given that the distance in resources between SEC and ACC schools is likely to continue to expand, I'm at the very least confident that the old days of this rivalry being dominated by Clemson are over.