The South Carolina Gamecocks welcome the Clemson Tigers to Williams-Brice Stadium in the 115th edition of the Palmetto Bowl this Saturday. The Tigers are looking to notch their fourth win in a row against the Gamecocks on their way to the ACC Championship game and a possible playoff bid, while South Carolina is hoping to cap a solid season of progress by playing spoiler. Here’s a quick look at the challenge Clemson presents.
No. 3 Clemson Tigers
Record: 10-1 (7-1 ACC, 3-1 away)
Last week: 61-3 victory against The Citadel
Top offensive playmakers: QB Kelly Bryant, RBs Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne, WR Deon Cain
Top defensive playmakers: DT Christian Wilkins, DE Clelin Ferrell, DT Dexter Lawrence, DE Austin Bryant (basically, the entire defensive line)
Best win: No. 6 Auburn (9-2)
Worst loss: Syracuse (4-7)
The post-Deshaun Watson era has been treating the Tigers kindly. While Clemson’s offense is not as explosive as it has been in the past, and they no longer boast one of the best players in the country at quarterback, the Tigers have managed to keep things clicking thanks to an abundance of skill talent. Travis Etienne (679 yards, 11 touchdowns) and Tavien Feaster (619 yards, six touchdowns) are an electric duo at running back, while Deon Cain (597 yards, five touchdowns) highlights a receiving corps that features national championship hero Hunter Renfrow (451 yards, one touchdown) and the promising Tee Higgins (261 yards, two touchdowns). Quarterback Kelly Bryant is also an effective and dynamic rusher, just shy of Feaster with 613 yards, 10 rushing scores, and leads the team with a whopping 156 carries. As a limited and still developing passer, Bryant’s clear strength is his legs, and as a result, the ground game is the centerpiece of Clemson’s offense. The decreased emphasis on the passing game also means the Tigers are more careful with the ball, turning it over less than in previous years. In all, Clemson’s offense is good enough to rank just outside of the top 25 nationally, checking in with 457 yards per game and 6.13 yards per play. It’s a different approach than what we’ve been used to seeing from the Tigers, but they’ve continued to get the same successful results.
Where Clemson doesn’t look different is the defensive side of the ball, which remains an elite unit and is the strength of the team. The aforementioned defensive line is loaded with future NFL talent, and the Tigers have racked up 39 sacks (second in the country) and 93 tackles for loss (sixth). Overall, Clemson’s defense ranks seventh nationally with 290 yards per game and 4.38 yards per play allowed. N.C. State’s 31 points is the largest total any opponent has rung up on the Tigers, as they rank third nationally in scoring defense with just 14 points per game allowed. Despite injuries and lack of depth in the secondary — to the extent that receiver Ray-Ray McCloud has been spending time at cornerback — the Tigers have continued to suffocate their opponents, led by that beastly effort up front. Interestingly, Clemson has not been adept at forcing turnovers, generating just 14 on the season. It’s difficult to nitpick much else about this group, though.
On special teams
South Carolina’s kicking woes have been well documented and agonized over, but Clemson has been on a field goal roller coaster of its own. After starting kicker Greg Huegel tore his ACL in practice, the Tigers were forced to turn to Alex Spence just three games into the season. Spence, a redshirt sophomore and former walk-on, is an uninspiring 6-of-11 on field goals, with many of those misses coming from inside 45 yards. (He is, however, 32-of-33 on extra points.) Clemson has also not shown much of a threat in the return game, but McCloud’s bonkers runback against N.C. State is worth keeping in mind (although he has also been known to make some very poor decisions). Much like last season, inconsistent special teams play remains a trouble spot for the Tigers, but also like last season, they’ve been able to paper over it with an elite defense and efficient red zone offense.