This is the week. Saturday is the day.
I could care less about Ohio State/Michigan or Auburn/Alabama or any of the other rivalries around this country. You see, I live in South Carolina. I am a Clemson fan. The only game in the world that matters to me is the Tigers and the Gamecocks this Saturday.
This great annual rivalry returns to Death Valley this Saturday in a game that means just about everything to both teams. Neither team is going to play for a National Championship this year. Neither team is going to a BCS bowl game this year. Neither team is going to play in their respective conference championship game this year.
And yet this game means everything.
Tommy Bowden has had a nice touch when it comes to whipping his archrival. Save the 2001 loss in Columbia, Bowden has beaten the Gamecocks every year of his tenure. Bowden even has three of the most memorable wins in Clemson history over the Gamecocks notched on his resume. Bowden’s first team beat South Carolina 31-21 to ensure a winless season for Lou Holtz. Bowden’s second team provided one of the most dramatic wins in the Clemson/South Carolina series as Rod Gardner made a miraculous catch to set up Aaron Hunt’s field goal in the waning seconds to snatch a win from the jaws of defeat. And Bowden’s 5th team was responsible for the worst drubbing in the history of the rivalry, whipping the Gamecocks 63-17 in 2003. On one hand, those games mean a lot.
And on the other hand, this game means everything.
Steve Spurrier has walked into this rivalry not really sure what to make of it. Spurrier, from the SEC old guard, enjoys beating Georgia and Tennessee and Florida as much as anybody. Spurrier took an almost ambivalent approach to the Clemson game a year ago prior to the 13-9 Tiger win. Spurrier has had a year to sit on that loss, coupled with the countless Gamecock Club meetings that surely have brought to the surface the concerns of Gamecock fans desperate for a win over Clemson. Spurrier may have gotten the message, allegedly telling recruits last spring that if they come to Carolina they will never lose to Clemson. It’s a bold statement, assuming he made it.
A statement that this game means everything.
Clemson fans hardly know what it is like to lose to South Carolina. The Tigers have won eight of the last nine games and hold a monumental historical edge over the Gamecocks. Beating South Carolina is almost an expectation. Losing to the Gamecocks is akin to the world ending. It creates a scenario for Clemson fans where the fear of losing this game outweighs the joy in winning it.
Indeed, this game means everything.
South Carolina fans are eternal optimists by trade. Every year, just like every new coach, brings a new dawn of vibrate expectations and hope and optimism. Almost every sunset bring typical results. The Gamecocks have fielded one of their most competitive teams in years, almost beating four teams that were ranked in the top 15 when they played them. They seem as well coached as any Gamecock team I have seen in the past 15 years. Yet the Gamecocks sit 6-5 and 4th in the SEC East, which makes this year an almost carbon copy of years past in so many ways.
But somehow this game means everything.
Any rivalry week has its fair share of spice thrown into the mix. This year is no different as the Gamecocks have been on the front page with rumors about their coach being courted by two powerful football factories coupled with admissions that recruiting violations occurred this summer…aptly timed to be released during this rivalry week. Throw in early week bad weather that has hampered practices in Columbia and Clemson, and what you have here is a whole lot of action other than preparation for this game. It could add fuel to the fire or cause enough distraction to lessen the quality of play, we’ll just have to wait and see on Saturday.
This game means everything.
Several major columnists from our state newspapers came out of the woods again this week to preach about how this rivalry should be run. From shaking hands prior to the game to suggesting how this game can be recognized more on the national front, our media outsiders once again have swept in to try and tell us what is wrong with our rivalry. The answer, of course, is that nothing is wrong with our rivalry.
Outsiders in the media do not understand that this rivalry is not about them, the rest of the country, or the politically correct police.
This game is about Clemson and South Carolina. Writers should be honored that they are asked/required to cover it. Writers whisk into a climate controlled box to munch on fried chicken and brownies, shake hands with other media geeks, watch other games that are on the television, and eventually to articulate what they are seeing on the field during the game. Most of them do an average job at the basics. But when they try and pontificate on what this rivalry means and what we can do to improve the rivalry they show a complete lack of common sense or a great dose of ignorance.
You can’t sum up this game by watching from a press box or hiding behind a computer in your office. And you certainly can’t sum this game up if you don’t have an emotional attachment to it.
This rivalry, for the people of South Carolina, has been wonderful for 104 years without influence from anyone outside of this state. Tiger and Gamecock players, while playing hard on the field, have managed to play the game like a rivalry should be played for 103 of the 104 years this rivalry has existed. A handful of players (less than 10) gave our rivalry a black eye for 3 minutes of stupidity two years ago.
It was what it was. It's over.
Rivals don't shake hands before a game, they shake them after. Rival fans don't like each other and scream as loud as they can for three hours one day a year like we despise each other. At the end of the day, one side will gloat and the other will sulk. We will all go back home to work and live side by side with the "enemy" for the other 364 days of the year like the civilized human beings that we are.
Swinging in from far off places to tell us that we need to do this or that so people in other far off places can enjoy our game more is everything that our rivalry is not. A columnist telling us what can make our rivalry great is like me going to Ohio and telling Wolverine and Buckeye fans how to change their rivalry. Or like me telling the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees a better way to handle their rivalry. Sounds ludicrous, right? So does Ron or Bart telling Clemson and South Carolina fans all that is wrong with us and what we should do to fix it.
There is nothing ugly, dirty, mean, or bad about this rivalry. It's a great rivalry. It’s the best rivalry in the world as far as I’m concerned. What people in New York or Michigan or California or China or Russia think of this rivalry is 100% irrelevant.
Ron and Bart don’t get it, and they never will. Their ignorance on the situation is their problem, not ours. This game means everything to us and that is all that matters.
I can’t wait for it to get here and I cross my fingers that Saturday afternoon will have me gloating instead of sulking.