Sunday, September 25, 2011

South Carolina and Clemson Start Down Memory Lane

With South Carolina and Clemson football programs both 4-0 to start the season, one can only think of the dream season for each of these programs and the situations that parallel those memorable seasons.  In 1981 Clemson coming of a 6-5 season in 1980, went undefeated and won the National Championship beating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to collect the No. 1 spot in the land.  In 1984 South Carolina recorded its best record in the history of the program, and arguably one game away from playing for a National Championship, but an upset by Navy late in the season denied the Gamecocks of the No. 1 ranking that awaited that evening if a victory would have been secured.  South Carolina went on to squeak by Clemson to end the season and then lose a heart breaker late in the Gator Bowl to finish 10-2.

What makes the two seasons for each significantly notable is that Clemson was coached by Danny Ford a 33 year old third year head coach.  The National Championship made him the youngest head coach to win a national title.  The Clemson Tigers were not ranked entering the season and were in no way in the championship discussions or consideration.  The team started its' season beating Wofford 45-10, Tulane 13-5, #4 Georgia 13-3 and Kentucky 21-3.  Three years later the 1984 Gamecocks were being coached by a highly regarded Joe Morrison, but still had not yet achieved any significant accomplishments as a football program other than providing the stage for George Rogers to win the Heisman in 1980.  That year South Carolina defeated The Citadel 31-24, Duke 21-0, Georgia 17-0 and Kansas State 49-17.  The Gamecocks would go on to string wins against Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, East Carolina, North Carolina State and Florida State before the streak would end at 9-0 at Annapolis, with the Gamecocks ranked #2 behind Nebraska who would lose their first game of the season earlier that day.  In 1981, Clemson was less regarded and would follow their 4-0 start with consecutive wins against Virgina, Duke, NC State, Wake Forest, #9 UNC, Maryland, South Carolina and #4 Nebraska to claim the National Crown.  Clemson would rise to the #14 slot in the polls and move to #9, #6, #4, #3, #2 and eventually #1 going into the Orange Bowl, on January 1, 1982, against the #4 Cornhuskers. This year, as was the case in 1981, Clemson was being coached by an apparent young inexperienced head coach in his third season and regarded as a team being rebuilt coming of an average season.  Does this sound like anything familiar with the 2011 Tiger unit exactly 30 years later, under the leadership of Dabo Swinney?  In his third full season at 41 is still considered young, he has taken Clemson from disregarded to victories over Troy, Wofford, #21 Auburn and #11 FSU and a #15 Coach's Poll and #13 AP ranking after week four.  

The arch rival Gamecocks on the other hand started the season nationally ranked with high expectations, following a strong regular season last year, that included the first ever trip to the SEC conference championship game.  The addition of the #1 high school player, Jadeveon Clowney, to head a top 10 recruiting class, to go along with the national freshman of the year, Marcus Lattimore, making South Carolina a team to be watched and projected to compete for the SEC championship again in 2011, ranked #15 to start the season.  The 1984 team was coming off a 5-6 season, and considered a team in progress of being built.  However, this team would climb into the national rankings at #20 and with the wins over Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, would then slip into the top 10 in week seven.  South Carolina had established an identity for its' defense, then known as the "Fire Ants" for their swarming philosophy and creation of turnovers.  This year's team is much the same even with the absence of the "Fire Ant" characteristics.  This team has been able to win games against moderate to competitive teams with big plays by the defense and special teams, and a strong running performance again by Lattimore, finding ways to win while question marks continue, weekly, about the inconsistency of the offense.  

Clemson 2011, in mirroring Clemson 1981, began the season with question marks, but while the names on the back of the jerseys do not display Jordan, Davis, Kinard and Tuttle, they now read Boyd, Watkins, Allen and Ellington.  While both teams have unanswered questions, Clemson 2011 is improving each week, and impressing even the earlier doubting analyst, and finding victories against mid major and nationally ranked BCS powers.  Exploiting the talent and speed of their youth blended with solid physicality from their veteran players, and now in the national picture.  South Carolina 2011 is going into the stronger part of their schedule, which is where the 1984 team established its national credibility with wins over highly regarded Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, and eventually powerhouse, FSU in week nine when they finally rose to #2.  In South Carolina's case, the stat line does not list Hold, Dendy, Hillary and Hagood, but more nationally recognized Garcia, Lattimore, Clowney and Ingram, but the events have the same buzz affect, the hope of a championship.

So "fast-forward" to now, Steve Spurrier and Dabo Swinney have orchestrated current #9 and #13 rankings respectively and now control their individual team's destiny.  By continuing to improve team efficiencies and performances each week until the final regular season game where, if both can maintain their winning ways, the storied rivalry could just decide which team has a chance to play for a BCS National Title.  In each of the historical seasons, the top football game in the state of South Carolina was won by the team with the best record.  In 1981 Clemson won 29-13 and in 1984 South Carolina won 22-21, with each game decided on the opposing team's field.  Either way, the Gamecocks and the Tigers have made the state of South Carolina relevant in the BCS National Picture.