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SEC vs ACC: Clemson and South Carolina Try to Make the Palmetto State Relevant

Posted: Feb 16, 2009

In continuing our look at the states with both ACC and SEC teams, we move to the Palmetto State, where a ton of changes occurred in the offseason.

Clemson named Dabo Swinney the permanent head coach after he went 4-3 as the interim coach following Tommy Bowden’s firing. The Tigers started the 2008 season rated as a Top 10 club, but after being blown out by Alabama in the opener, they never recovered and Bowden was dismissed midseason.

In Columbia, Steve Spurrier saw half of his staff change after another season where South Carolina could not ascend to the upper echelon of the SEC. The Gamecocks did reach 7-3 after beating Arkansas, but then lost their last three games by a combined 88 points.

Unlike Georgia, where the ACC team has been chasing the SEC big brother of late, the opposite seems to be true in South Carolina. Clemson has ruled the instate rivalry historically and has dominated over the last decade, with the Gamecocks only winning in 2001 and 2006 during that span. The South Carolina and Clemson rivalry goes way back and is probably underrated on a national scale as far as intensity, but unfortunately that happens when neither wins any championships.

We wrote last week that the 2009 season looks to be a critical one for Steve Spurrier in Columbia, considering the Gamecocks fans long to take a significant step forward.  The first step will be to get the offense to improve. The South Carolina program seems to have plenty of talent, but the Ole Ball Coach has not been able to find a serviceable QB in four years on the job - a shocking development considering his reputation and past success developing QBs at Florida.

The Gamecocks finished 44th in scoring offense in 2006, but they have regressed since then, ranking 70th in ’07 and a dismal 96th last season. Spurrier must see offensive improvement this year for South Carolina to have any chance of accomplishing their two main goals: getting into the upper tier of the SEC and evening up the Palmetto rivalry with the Tigers.

New Clemson coach Dabo Swinney fits the recent popular mold in college football of hiring a young and energetic coach who will recruit tirelessly. After a decent stint in taking over for Tommy Bowden, Swinney’s energy won over the Tigers' administration and now he will try to lead the team to an ACC Title. It is important for young coaches to surround themselves with good people, and perhaps Swinney’s best move of the offseason was acquiring defensive coordinator Kevin Steele from Alabama. Steele is a veteran defensive coach, who is also known as a great recruiter.

Clemson seems to have a fairly easy schedule - even if Swinney disagrees - and they should have every opportunity to compete for the ACC Atlantic Division crown. Instead of facing a top team again, the Tigers open this season with a home game against Middle Tennessee, and their other non-conference foes include Coastal Carolina, likely Idaho, and of course the Gamecocks. On the other hand, South Carolina opens on the road against another ACC foe, NC State, and then faces the rugged SEC battle royal before ending with Clemson.

Unfortunately, the state of South Carolina seems to be defined by teams who are talented but have not met their fan bases’ expectations. Clemson has been the better team historically, but despite sending a decent number of players to the NFL, the Tigers have not won an ACC Title since 1991. That fact seems unacceptable to the fans who fill “Death Valley” each Saturday, especially since Clemson stands as the ACC's only pre-expansion school that significantly values football over basketball.

In Columbia, the Gamecock fans should be a little more understanding of the fact that their team has never really sniffed an SEC Title Game because of the top-notch competition in the East. However, South Carolina fans rightly feel as though they have all the pieces for success.  They will be even less "understanding" if the offense does not improve soon and if the team cannot defeat their instate rival.

At the moment, these are two schools taking two vastly different approaches.  On its face, Clemson's hiring of Swinney seems the bigger risk.  Talent was not the problem under Tommy Bowden.  Coaching that talent to victories was the issue that got him fired.  A 4-3 record with a bowl loss is not a riproaring start for Bowden's replacement.

Looking beyond their Palmetto State borders, South Carolina desperately wants to be relevant in the SEC.  Spurrier's arrival has made them competitive, but they long to challenge for a conference title.  However, this is just the kind of bold talk that has come from Spurrier's lips since arriving in Columbia.  In 2009, Gamecock fans are likely moving past the talking stage and are looking for real results.

Despite being in two very different parts of their career, both Steve Spurrier and Dabo Swinney definitely have something to prove to their respective fan bases in 2009. Look forward to a very interesting year in the Palmetto State.

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palmettopirate says...

I'm a die hard Gamecock fan living in Tennessee. Growing up in South Carolina I've watched the Gamecock's underachive year after year. I thought Spurrier was the answer but It looks as if he's lost his touch. I know how those Cubs fan's feel. Let's hope that trend don't continue!

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