The Palmetto Bowl showdown is set for tomorrow, and we chatted with Tom Dianora of sister site Shakin' the Southland to get some inside perspective on how our furry friends in the Upstate are feeling.
There’s been a lot of chatter about Clemson’s soft schedule, usually with the implication that the Tigers aren’t actually that impressive this year. What’s your take on how under the radar Clemson has been?
I kind of like that the weak schedule has made Clemson a more under-the-radar contender (at least as much as an undefeated national champion can be). Dabo Swinney is a master of spinning the narrative to make his team look like the underdogs and keep them consistently motivated, but the national media has taken most of that responsibility away from him.
Having said that, I was admittedly a little bit concerned early in the season. There was of course the UNC scare, but Trevor Lawrence and the offense did not look consistently sharp in the games leading up to that. I was still mostly optimistic, though, that the Tigers would hit their stride later in the year as they typically do, and that’s what’s happened. Sure, their schedule hasn’t been great given a weak ACC and Texas A&M turning out to be only an OK team, but they have been annihilating opponents ever since the close shave against the Tar Heels. More importantly, Lawrence and the offense look much more comfortable. Thankfully, the early-season bumps in the road have kept the Tigers under the radar, at least insofar as LSU and Ohio State getting more attention. And while some fans might complain, that’s just the way Dabo and the team (and I) like it.
Speaking of under the radar, it seems like nobody’s talking about Travis Etienne, who has been averaging around eight yards per carry. Do you expect him to factor heavily into CU’s game plan, or will Trevor Lawrence be looking to light it up?
Etienne has indeed had a great season after a poor performance against UNC that featured a lost fumble and numerous missed blocks. His return to dominance since then is a microcosm of Clemson’s season to this point. He won’t sniff a Heisman invitation to New York, despite leading the nation in yards per carry (8.7) by a wide margin, and having only 350 fewer yards than Wisconsin’s much-ballyhooed Jonathan Taylor despite a whopping 112 fewer carries.
But I digress to get back to your question. From what I’ve seen, South Carolina’s star power seems to reside more so on its defensive line than any other unit, led by Javon Kinlaw and D.J. Wonnum. So while Clemson should ultimately throw a balanced attack at the Gamecocks, I could see them starting out aggressively with some down-field throws against a seemingly vulnerable South Carolina secondary to then help open things up for Etienne.
Keeping with that same theme, are there any so-far unheralded Tigers that Gamecock fans should be aware of?
Backup running back Lyn-J Dixon is always a threat to pop some big runs when he spells Etienne. I’d also look for freshman Joseph Ngata to make a few big plays as he gets more comfortable, as well as senior Diondre Overton, who could be the beneficiary of the presumed focus on Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross.
On the other side of the ball, the Clemson secondary has been fantastic this year, yielding only 128.5 passing yards per game (second in the nation to Ohio State, 126.2). Veterans A.J. Terrell, K’Von Wallace, and Tanner Muse are leaders on the back end, but the more unheralded player is first-year cornerback and former wide receiver Derion Kendrick, who has been a big part of locking down the opposition’s passing attack. It’s hard to look for a cornerback to play well if the ball doesn’t get thrown his way a ton, but he’s a guy who has had a major effect on games with his tight coverage.
South Carolina put a bit of a scare into Clemson last season, enjoying an unexpectedly huge day against that stout defense. Given the Tigers’ near-miss against North Carolina earlier this year, how likely do you think it is that another surprisingly competitive matchup unfolds on Saturday?
You never know in a heated rivalry game, but I don’t think it’s (read: I hope it’s not) overly likely, as Clemson is a different team since the UNC game. That being said, I expect the Cocks to come out with an effort similar to the one they had earlier this season against Alabama, where the lopsided final score belied some of the effectiveness they had in moving the ball and keeping things interesting for a while, thanks to a game plan that threw everything they had at the Crimson Tide. I think South Carolina will come out looking to be creative and deceptive on offense, and they might put together a few big plays. But Brent Venables and the Tigers should be ready following last year’s contest, and should be able to do a better job of limiting the damage this time around.
More generally speaking, how are Clemson fans feeling about the rivalry these days? I’m sure there are no complaints about the current streak, but is there any kind of desire for the games to have a little more juice?
Speaking from a personal standpoint (and as someone who did not grow up in South Carolina despite attending Clemson), more competitive games where both teams are good would be more fun in a lot of ways, but I also enjoy not feeling like I’m going to throw up every minute of every game. The biggest benefit, though, to the Cocks and/or Clemson’s ACC opponents being a bit better would be that the Tigers would be better tested going into the College Football Playoff (assuming they are still able to win the games they need to win). It didn’t hurt them last year, but hard-fought games against high-quality teams are always helpful for future battles.
Thanks again to Tom for taking the time to give his thoughtful responses, and be sure to check out STS for ours!