It's been an up-and-down season for Clemson, but they could salvage some pride if they beat South Carolina. The Tigers beat Wake Forest last week to get their first road win and become bowl eligible. The Gamecocks caught Clemson looking ahead to its conference championship game last year, and the Tigers have a chance to reverse those roles this year. Here's your final regular season preview:
Clemson offense vs. South Carolina defense
Clemson finally found ways to get the ball into the end zone last week, and Chandler Catanzaro has apparently got his kicking stroke figured out. These are both good signs, but the Wake Forest defense doesn't have the athletes the Gamecock defense does. Kyle Parker only threw two incomplete passes last week, but that may be because he's become so hesitant to throw the ball. He continues to have trouble seeing the field, not throwing it to open receivers over the middle time and time again. That isn't going to fly against South Carolina, whose secondary is ripe for exploitation. There are rumors that Andre Ellington will play on Saturday, but even if he does, I don't expect him to be healthy enough to be much of a factor. That means Jamie Harper will have to carry the load again, and he will probably need his best game yet against a good Gamecock front seven. Jaron Brown had one of his best games of the year, totaling 93 receiving yards and catching a 40-yard touchdown pass from Parker. He, Nuke Hopkins and the rest of the receiving corps will have to be in top form on Saturday. Tight end Dwayne Allen will also need to be a factor, at least drawing the defense's attention. Sophomore defensive end Devin Taylor has been the Gamecocks' best player on the defensive line, notching 12 tackles for loss and seven sacks. Antonio Allen and Josh Dickerson head up an experienced linebacking corps. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore leads the team with 59 tackles but hasn't lived up to the standard he set for himself in coverage last year. Safeties D.J. Swearinger and DeVonte Holloman have 55 tackles apiece. The secondary has been South Carolina's weakness this year, giving up 250 yards passing per game and getting shredded by the likes of Arkansas and Kentucky. Clemson is going to have to throw the ball effectively if they are going to have a chance to win this game.
Key Matchup: Clemson wide receivers vs. South Carolina secondary
I said it above and I'll say it again. The passing game is where Clemson has to make hay against the Gamecock defense. Kyle Parker must be willing to throw the ball down the field and trust his receivers to make plays. Hopefully success in the passing game can open up the run game as well.
Advantage: South Carolina
South Carolina offense vs. Clemson defense
South Carolina has really turned into an offensive juggernaut this season, and its no secret that freshman running back Marcus Lattimore is the reason. His ability to run the ball frequently and effectively has demanded the focus of opposing defenses and given Alshon Jeffery ample opportunity to make plays down the field. Lattimore has rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 17 touchdowns this year and has cemented himself as a force in college football for at least the next two years. He has also been able to make plays catching the ball out of the backfield. Stephen Garcia has finally got it together in his junior year, throwing 16 touchdowns and completing 68 percent of his passes. Jeffery has simply been uncoverable this season. The six-foot-four wideout ranks fifth in the nation in receiving yards and has seven touchdown catches. Tori Gurley also has 39 catches, and Ace Sanders has 21. Clemson's defense was good again last week and probably could have pitched a shutout if they hadn't substituted players so early. Da'Quan Bowers notched two more sacks and is now just a half sack shy of Keith Adams' Clemson single-season record of 16. The Clemson front four will need to dominate the line of scrimmage and not only bottle up Lattimore, but also get pressure on Garcia. The Tigers' linebackers will also be important in stopping Lattimore, and Corico Hawkins and Co. need to play their best game of the year. The secondary will have its hands full with Jeffery and may even need to hit him with double teams to force somebody else to beat them. DeAndre McDaniel needs to have a career game in his home finale.
Key Matchup: Bowers vs. Hutch Eckerson
I typically don't cite one-on-one matchups as the "key matchup", but I'm making an exception this week. Bowers is the best defensive player in this game, and perhaps in the country. Eckerson is the South Carolina right tackle who will have the task of blocking Bowers for most of the game. Eckerson only weighs about 280 pounds, and that may mean he is agile enough to stay with the Clemson superstar. But does he have the strength as well? Guess we'll find out.
Hopefully Catanzaro has got his field goal form figured out. Frankly, it took him long enough. Dawson Zimmerman is looking to cap off an excellent year punting the ball. Marcus Gilchrist has been good in the return game, but I have a feeling this is the game he takes one all the way back. Spencer Lanning has been a solid two-way kicker for the Gamecocks, making 75 percent of his field goals and averaging 44 yards per punt. The South Carolina kick return game has not been anything special this year.
All signs point to South Carolina winning this game, but they are in the exact same position the Tigers were in last year when they lost in Columbia 34-17. The Gamecocks are better on paper, but I think they may have the SEC Championship Game on their minds. Couple that with a night game in Death Valley, and South Carolina may be ripe for the picking. And, if nothing else, I'm not going to give any Gamecock fans the satisfaction of having me pick them to win.
Clemson 21 South Carolina 20