Clemson will attempt to put a punctuation mark on a perfect regular Saturday night when the unbeaten and second-ranked Tigers play host to rival South Carolina.
Coach Dabo Swinney’s team enters the game 11-0 and assured of a spot in its fourth consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game. But a win against the Gamecocks would not only be the Tigers’ fifth in a row in the series, but also make Swinney’s 2018 team the second in school history to be 12-0.
“How many 12-0 teams have there been at any program?” Swinney asked. “It’s hard to win. Just look around college football; it’s hard to win week in and week out.”
“I have such great respect for this team and how they’ve played from a totality standpoint in these previous 11 games. They have had this incredible will to win and incredible will to prepare.”
While Clemson’s 1981 national championship team finished 11-0, the only other team in school history to be 12-0 was Swinney’s 2015 team. That team started the season 14-0 before falling to Alabama, 45-40, in the national championship game.
Saturday’s annual Palmetto Bowl is one of the top rivalries in college football, enhanced in its status because there are no professional teams in the state.
“This is what it’s all about,” Swinney said. “It’s like a one-game season. It’s a game that’s more personal. You live with it every single day and it has a little juice to it.”
The intensity isn’t lost on third-year South Carolina coach Will Muschamp.
“It’s a passionate game and very important to our state,” Muschamp said. “One of the great rivalries in college football.”
Muschamp’s team is 6-4 and bowl eligible for a third straight year, but knows it faces a monumental task, particularly in attempting to handle the Tigers’ defensive front of Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant.
“Defensively it’s the same front four we’ve faced for three years,” Muschamp said. “They’re very talented players and (defensive coordinator) Brent (Venables) does a good job of mixing things up with those guys.”
The game will mark Muschamp’s first up-close look at Clemson freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, but he’s impressed by what he’s seen on video.
“Trevor Lawrence can make all the throws,” Muschamp said. “A tremendous arm talent. They’ve given him the whole playbook and he’s really done a good job taking care of the football, making explosive plays down the field, getting them in the right stuff.”
Lawrence has 21 touchdown passes — the most among freshman quarterbacks in the FBS.
Sophomore running back Travis Etienne leads a productive four-player running back group for Clemson that averages 8.04 yards per carry.
“Etienne is a guy I’ve been really impressed with really strong lower body and he has big-time speed,” Muschamp said. “Travis is a guy that really catches your eye and he’s made a lot of big plays for them. Their run game has been remarkably better from a year ago.”
The big question for Clemson’s offense is the medical status of graduate receiver Hunter Renfrow, who missed the second half of last week’s win over Duke with a head injury. He’s listed as day-to-day.
South Carolina is led by junior quarterback Jake Bentley, who has passed for more than 2,200 yards with 19 touchdowns. He has three of the Southeastern Conference’s top receivers at his disposal, led by Bryan Edwards and Deebo Samuel, who have six touchdown receptions apiece.
“Bentley has got a great arm,” Swinney said. “He’s accurate and he’s playing with a lot more confidence.
Swinney is expecting more than a four-quarter battle in the annual rivalry showdown, which he compares to the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn. Swinney played and coached at Alabama before joining the Clemson staff 16 years ago.
“I find it hard to believe that there are any rivalries better than the two I’ve been a part of,” Swinney said. “The two states are similar. You’ve got to be (a fan) of one or the other. It has an intensity that kind of consumes the state and carries over into the offseason.
“The biggest difference is we’re not in the same conference, like Alabama and Auburn are. That’s the only layer we don’t have.”