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South Carolina Gamecocks at Clemson Tigers - Statistical Preview

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The Gamecocks and Tigers put their best and worst units up against one another. Can the Carolina defense do enough against the Clemson offense to give them a chance to win on Saturday?

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

South Carolina and Clemson renew acquaintances in the newly dubbed Palmetto Bowl on Saturday at noon.  Most objective observers favor the Tigers, given the way the season has gone, but will apparently improved play by the Carolina defense, coupled with the possible loss of Deshaun Watson, tip the scales to Carolina?

Overall Record AP Rank F/+ Rank S&P+ Rank FEI Rank
South Carolina 6-5 (3-5) NR 48 49 38
Clemson 8-3 (6-2) 23 20 17 22

The Gamecocks scrambled to bowl eligibility on Saturday with their win over South Alabama, which came after a huge in-conference victory over Florida in Gainesville to finish the SEC season at 3-5.  The Gamecocks left wins on the table against Missouri, Tennessee, Auburn and Kentucky, and aren't very far removed from a possible 6-2 or 7-1 record in the SEC.  On the other hand, they struggled against a relatively easy SEC slate, got blown out by a middling Texas A&M, and struggled at times to put away weaker foes such as Vanderbilt.

Meanwhile, Clemson's lost every game against competent opposition, with the (possible) exception of Louisville.  They were spotted the absence of Jameis Winston in Tallahassee but couldn't close the door, and imploded against Georgia Tech two weekends ago in Atlanta.  That said, they've taken care of business against most of the weaker teams on the schedule, although none of their margins of victory over Wake Forest (14 points), Syracuse (10 points), or Boston College (4 points) inspires great confidence.  Then again, when your calling card is defense, you win ugly and don't ask questions.

When South Carolina has the ball
USC Offense Clemson Defense
S&P+ 112.6 (28th) 132.6 (2nd)
FEI .747 (4th) -.774 (1st)
Success Rate 46.8% (24th) 29.2% (1st)
IsoPPP 0.86 (54th) 0.81 (47th)
Rushing S&P 126.9 (15th) 148.1 (2nd)
Passing S&P 125.4 (22nd) 154.2 (4th)
Std. Downs S&P 123.4 (17th) 137.3 (3rd)
Pass. Downs S&P 126.9 (26th) 176.7 (2nd)
Std. Downs Run% 60.4% (52nd)
Pass. Downs Run% 20.0% (125th)

This is the match-up of the afternoon, as Dylan Thompson heads to Clemson with a great chance at becoming the single-season leader for passing yards among Carolina quarterbacks.  In his way is one of the best defenses the Gamecocks will face this season, a terrific group that's shut down just about everyone they've faced.  While Georgia finished them off late in Athens and Chapel Hill threw up 35 points in a shoot-out earlier this year, they've otherwise held teams under 21 points in every game this year.  While Clemson is one of the best defenses Carolina has faced all year, it's worth noting that USC is also one of the best offenses that Clemson will face all year.

The Tigers simply don't have many weaknesses, either in the front 7 or the secondary.  Almost one out of every 6 plays run against Clemson ends with a member of the front 7 creating a tackle for loss, pass break-up, or interception, the best rate in the nation.  The secondary isn't quite that strong but the passing defense as a whole suggests there just isn't much room to attack the Tigers, no matter how you go about it.

The only real place that Clemson's shown weakness has been in big plays, posting a mediocre defensive IsoPPP (basically, how big are your successful plays?).  When you don't allow many successful plays in the first place, it doesn't hurt you that much to be average in this area, and given that Carolina hasn't made its living in big plays this year, it's worth wondering if this is something the Gamecocks can exploit.  However, they'll likely have to if they want to do enough damage to make up for their defense, who despite recent successes will likely continue to struggle.

When Clemson has the ball
Clemson Offense USC Defense
S&P+ 102.6 (50th) 94.6 (83rd)
FEI -.011 (60th) .569 (124th)
Success Rate 38.9% (95th) 47.5% (118th)
IsoPPP 0.86 (58th) 0.83 (62nd)
Rushing S&P 83.9 (112th) 86.6 (106th)
Passing S&P 101.1 (64th) 99.7 (66th)
Std. Downs S&P 91.3 (98th) 90.9 (100th)
Pass. Downs S&P 96.0 (81st) 98.9 (71st)
Std. Downs Run% 57.3% (79th)
Pass. Downs Run% 31.9% (68th)

While the other side of the ball is the best match-up, this may be where the teams decide if Carolina can win it.  It's not news to anyone that the Tigers are better when they're lead by Deshaun Watson instead of Cole Stoudt, and his health could determine the winner of this game.  A quick look at the offensive efficiency of the Tigers in every game shows how much better they are when they have Watson under center instead of Stoudt - it's really not that close.

Clemson QBs Off. FEI Stoudt Att. Watson Att.
Georgia 0.966 29 4
Florida St. 0.814 5 28
North Carolina 0.594 3 36
North Carolina St. 0.778 1 29
Louisville 0.513 33 6
Boston College 0.362 45
Syracuse -0.031 35
Wake Forest 0.516 42
Georgia Tech -0.549 11 6
Georgia State -1.163 29
Total Weighted OFEI 0.209 0.646

Clemson doesn't run the ball well (then again, the Gamecocks don't really stop the run well), so all eyes go to the passing game.  If Watson can throw - even without being mobile - then the Carolina defensive backfield needs to step up in order for them to win this game.  Given how weak the pass rush has been all season, despite the sieve-like nature of Clemson's offensive line, Watson may not need the mobility to stay on the field and upright throughout this game.

Truly, it's a match-up of two lackluster units, but it's likely the difference in this game if one can out-play the other.

Special teams
South Carolina Clemson
ST Points +8.3 -10.3
FEI ST .485 (51st) -.902 (102nd)
Field Position Adv. .482 (100th) .505 (50th)

It's a strange world we live in, but it's the truth - the Gamecocks enter this game with a special teams advantage, based on the balance of play this year.  More amazingly, these numbers actually understate USC's advantage in part, because FEI doesn't credit teams for the field goal efficiency of their opponents, since team's normally don't control how well their opposing kicker handles field goals.  Given the number of blocks Carolina has this year, it may be worth re-assessing that in future iterations of the rating.

That said, the Gamecocks don't win special teams in field position, as the Shon Carson Experiment continues to sputter. Meanwhile, Clemson really hasn't excelled anywhere in special teams aside from punt coverage.  As with every game, if either team can find a big advantage in this match-up, it could swing a close game.

Conclusion

The game seems to come down to whether Deshaun Watson plays.  I know, you didn't need four tables of data and 1200 words to get to that conclusion, but here we are.  One other thing you shouldn't undersell - the home-field advantage.  Three of the five wins in The Streak have come in Williams-Brice Stadium, and it doesn't take a genius to understand that teams play better in their own stadium.  The balance of the game seems to hinge on if the Carolina defense can out-play its normal standard, and if the team can otherwise overcome being on the road against a better team.  Of course, that team may not be much better than they are if they don't have their quarterback, but they'll still have the crowd at their backs on Saturday afternoon.

Obviously, any unit can settle this game as much as any other, but for Gamecock fans, the hope is that the North Carolina model against Clemson (pass and pass big) can work, or that they can replicate the Auburn model on offense (though do you really want to see that many 4th down attempts?).  For Clemson, hope Deshaun Watson can go.

It's an uphill battle for Carolina on Saturday, but they should be in the fight.  For Clemson, a loss would likely be the most frustrating of what would be six in a row, over half a decade of futility against a rival they've considered themselves superior to since birth.  Game on, Tigers.