The States of College Football: South Carolina
Posted By:Brett Haynes - Greenville, SC Tags:
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As we continue to take a look at the states of the college football union, we now turn to my home state, the Palmetto State - South Carolina. Both the ACC and the SEC are represented here in the Clemson Tigers and the South Carolina Gamecocks, respectively. The two schools are very different in many ways, but they share a common trait neither is proud of: no conference championships in the last 18 or more years. So while both programs will play in front of packed houses and rowdy, passionate fans this fall, both are aware of the long journey they each must take to reach the top.
The question I have is this: which team is further away from glory, Clemson or USC? I am not sure I will have an answer for you by the end of this writing, but I will tell you that both programs have a ways to go. Yes, the Tigers and Gamecocks have reasons to be very excited for 2009 as key players return on both side-lines. But the fact is that both programs will most-likely start the season outside of the top 25 when the polls come out later this summer, and that speaks for itself as far as the road ahead. Unless I am wrong, both schools have goals of conference championships, and those are rarely won by teams who begin the season unranked. I'm not saying it hasn't been done or cannot be done again, but you must admit that it is a pretty common pattern to see a top-ranked team win the conference as compared to an unranked team.
For alphabetical purposes, let's take a quick look first at Clemson of the ACC. The Tigers have become one of those teams that fans nationwide are afraid to like. In the last five to ten years, CU has had a bad habit of working itself into position to be in a huge game - a game that would have national impact - only to fall on its face. We have seen it in regular season games both home and away, we have seen it in bowl games, and we have even seen it in early-season inter-conference games that few teams even play in anyway! Season after season, the Tigers seem to have all of the ingredients in place to be a national factor, but yet they never really are.
To fix this problem and push Clemson over the hump that previous coach Tommy Bowden could not, the Tigers have promoted Dabo Swinney from being an interim coach to being the full-time main man. Swinney's coaching style is one of intensity and full of spirit, and he hopes to cash in on the talent built up by Bowden. He is a coach who is big into believing in what you are doing, and his new attitude led Clemson to a 5-3 record after he became interim head coach at midseason a year ago, and permanent head coach before the Gator Bowl. The Tigers were very close to winning two of those three losses, as well, as the Georgia Tech and Nebraska games involved controversial calls by the officials late in the contests.
To win the ACC, many feel Clemson must get better production on offense. The Tiger D is solid, and will be a strong point again in 2009 as they will play their usual athletic style - with good athletes - under new coordinator Kevin Steele, who arrived from Alabama. Steele promises more man coverage and a more attacking style which should excite many fans. Again, the defense isn't really the problem right now, it's the other side of the ball that needs some TLC.
The Tiger offense was supposed to run all over people in 2008 with feature backs James Davis and CJ Spiller in the same backfield. But the mediocre play of Cullen Harper at quarterback and a less-than-impressive o-line effort put a limit on the throwing threat and teams stacked up against the run last season. Now, folks in Tiger Town are resting their hopes on super-soph Willy Korn to make CU a threat to throw again. If he can show arm-strength, defenses will have to respect that, and Spiller (who returned for his senior season) will have room to run. The offensive line is also big and experienced now, so there can be no excuses there anymore either.
The bottom line for Clemson is that they must step up and get it done. They need to jump on a good team when they get the chance and blow them away. They need to taste blood and want more of it. They need to beat ALL of the teams they are supposed to beat - not just most of them. The athletes are there, the coaches are there, the schedule is there. The Tigers must take it now. Florida State will be the favorite to win the ACC Atlantic, but I think Clemson will challenge, and the two teams will face off in Death Valley where Clemson has won three straight.
It is easy to see why people have questions about Clemson for 2009 as basically a new coach and new quarterback will be leading the team. But down in Columbia, the natives must be wondering why they are still in rough waters. Six seasons ago, South Carolina went out and hired a legendary coach, a coach who had hoisted the crystal football, a coach who not only coached Heisman winners, but was one! He would surely lead the Gamecocks to the top of the SEC East, right? Wrong - at least so far.
I do not live there, but I can imagine that people in Columbia are beginning to grow just a tad bit tired of Steve Spurrier's one-liners and smart-ass comments. The Gamecocks have some of the most passionate fans in Amerca, and after six seasons of collecting over a million and a half bucks per year of the school's money, the Ole Ball Coach has brought them little more than a few good home wins and a few mid-level bowl appearances. Yes, he coaches in what is arguably the toughest division in all of college football, the SEC East. But that excuse is one that every USC coach will have to deal with as long as USC fields a team. It is starting to become obvious that Steve Spurrier is not going to be the coach who gets the Gamecocks to Atlanta and the SEC Title Game. But then again, that's why you play the games - to make sure. Spurrier may have another trick or two up his sleeve, and with some depth after several solid years of recruiting, I shouldn't write him off just yet.
South Carolina will play Stephen Garcia at quarterback in 2009. Garcia, a very highly recruited prep, has been in trouble for most of his career off of the field. But apparently he has now straightened up and is ready to put the team on his shoulders. He has the athletic ability to be an all-SEC type performer, but must continue to use his head for football and not just as a place for beer to enter his body. Garcia is the type of guy the team can rally behind as he is vocal. He is also big at 6-2 and 220 pounds. He will depend on Lemeule Jeanpierre (G) and Garrett Anderson (C) - two 6'4", 300 pound senior beasts - to provde protection up front for himself and running back Eric Baker (sophomore, 5'11" 194 lbs).
USC recruited in the top 20 of rivals rankings for four of the last five seasons (including a top-five class in 2007), so the athletes across the board are there for the Cocks to put togteher some good football. The key to winning in the SEC is depth, and Spurrier knows this. He is hoping this major haul of quality kids will give his team the depth it needs to stay in these long four-quarter conference games that take place late all season long.
The Gamecocks will have a hard time winning in the SEC again in 2009, in my opinion. Now do not get me wrong, I think they will be a good team - a team that could go and compete to win many divisions across the country. But in the SEC East, with Tim Tebow and Florida, and a strong top-10 Georgia team, as well as a Tennessee team that will be playing with its pants on fire with a new coach, the East will once again be an enormous undertaking for the Cocks. Kentucky and Vandy are pretty good programs, as well. But USC has all of the tools it needs to make a run at it, and 2009 will be fun to watch.
So there is a quick look at the state of college football in the Palmetto State....Stay tuned as we will next look at the schools that play big-time collegiate football in the neighbor to the north - North Carolina.
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