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South Carolina 2016 Opponent Preview: Can anybody beat Clemson?

The Clemson Tigers are a consensus favorite to make the playoffs again, but are the Gamecocks standing in the way of their rival’s perfect season?

Clemson v South Carolina Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Big Thursday. The Battle for the Palmetto State. The State Championship. The Hardees’ Combo Meal. The Palmetto Bowl. The best rivalry in college football. Whatever you want to call it, it’s the football game in the state of South Carolina, and it’s the topic of our final Opponent Preview of the 2016 season.

We don’t need to recap the history of this storied 200-year rivalry (but we will remind you of a couple great moments like this one, this one, this one, this one, and this one.), however, it is worth noting that this year marks a unique moment in time for the annual matchup between these two programs, as the Clemson Tigers stand on the precipice of dynasty status, while the South Carolina Gamecocks enter the year under the guise of a listless and floundering team without an identity or a certain future. So many question marks hang over this Carolina team while things seem so absolutely certain for the Tigers...but will those things still be true come November?

If the past two centuries have been any indication, the answer to that would be, absolutely, “anything is possible.”

So, instead of wondering about the final Saturday of the season, let’s find out what things look like in Tiger Town and what we can expect to see this year.

Last season, while playing the media role of plucky underdog fighting for national relevance all year, Clemson was secretly fielding legitimately one of the most, if not the most, talented football teams in college football. They did not play perfectly, but played well enough in the right spots, and played exceptionally when the lights were the brightest. Coach Dabo Swinney and his ‘family’ steamrolled their way across the meat and potatoes of the ACC while offering up oscar-worthy performances against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Florida State Seminoles. After a hard-fought victory against a school without a head coach and a thrilling squeaker against a team that said school without a head coach also beat, they continued their march square through the heart of Bob Stoops’ Oklahoma squad before falling victim to Nick Saban’s army of cybernetic muscle people. In all, it was about as perfect of a season as you could ask for, but the people in the northwest corner of the state feel as though they have more room to improve, and unfinished business to attend to.

Last Season: 14-1 (8-0, ACC).

Best returning player: Deshaun Watson.

CFP National Championship - Alabama v Clemson Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It goes without saying that Clemson has a lot of talent in a lot of places, but no one on the field will be more important to this team’s success than Watson. He’ll be, unquestionably, the best all-around player that the Gamecocks will face this season. His accuracy (67.8%, 5th in FBS) and overall production (4100+ yards and 35 TDs through the air; 1100+ yards and 12 TDs rushing) were a huge reason why he and the Tigers came a win away from their second national title, but what might have been more impactful, and harder to account for, is his uncanny ability to escape trouble and make plays. Barring injury, there’s no way he’s coming back in 2017, so can the potential #1 draft pick ride out as Clemson’s first Heisman winner and with a national championship in his bag?

Prognosis: The NFL took a lot of talent out of the trenches, including the face of their defense, Vic Beasley, and a good chunk of the experience on that side of the ball (including Kevin Dodd, Shaq Lawson, Stephone Anthony, Grady Jarrett, Tony Steward, Tavaris Barnes, Mackensie Alexander, and others) but they still return an intimidating batch of kids, headlined by Ben Boulware and Dorian O’Daniel. They also get the benefit of having noted master of the turkey baster, Robbie Caldwell, working with an extremely young offensive line tasked with (besides replacing Eric Mac Lain and Joe Gore) giving Watson the room to work and the protection necessary to distribute the ball to Wayne Gallman, Artavis Scott, and the eight million other wide receivers on Clemson’s roster.

Is this team better than last year’s squad? Not on paper, but they’re better at virtually every position than 6 or 7 teams on their schedule, and they’re still in a ridiculously good situation to make the playoffs if they go out and make plays on the field. That, as they say, is where anything is possible. The unthinkable can happen, or things just don’t work out despite your best laid plans, but that’s life. I, for one, hope the Tigers look like world-beaters every week except for their final weekend at home. It’s not likely, but, hey...anything is possible.

My brain is telling me to say South Carolina loses this game by two touchdowns, but my heart doesn’t care what my brain says.

Carolina 23 / Clemson 20