CLEMSON - A year ago Clemson came into the South Carolina game trying to continue a late-season winning streak which would, ultimately, save the job of head coach Tommy Bowden.
The 63-17 win at Williams-Brice Stadium had a key role in the drama, which played out its final act weeks later after the Tigers drubbed then No. 6 Tennessee in the Peach Bowl.
One year later Bowden's job is safe, but the Tigers (5-5) have other issues. Clemson needs a win today to gain a bowl berth, a feat which would make ACC history. No team in the league has ever started a season 1-4 and rebounded to become bowl eligible, which is exactly what lies ahead for the Tigers if they can win this afternoon in Death Valley.
Trying to block that path and, at the same time, improve its own bowl standing is a South Carolina (6-4) team with a coaching situation of its own.
No, Lou Holtz isn't going to be fired. But speculation is running rampant that today is Holtz's final regular season game, and that following the Gamecocks bowl appearance the job will be taken over by Steve Spurrier.
Local and national media have been buzzing with the story for much of the week, prompting one fan - apparently tired of the whole situation - to shake his head.
"The only thing keeping this from being a circus is the lack of a big top," the man said.
Big top or not, those are the circumstances under which the state's two main football programs meet today for the 102nd time in the rivalry's history (Clemson leads 61-36-4).
Given everything surrounding this game - on top of the usual madness - Death Valley should be a fun place to be.
"There was a lot more at stake (for me) professionally coming into the South Carolina game last year," Bowden said. "This year there are much different stakes in that we have to win to have a winning season and get into a bowl game. Last year those things weren't at stake, but there were some different things.
"This is always an important game and the opportunities this year just add to the intensity."
So far Clemson is 5-for-5 in bowl appearances under Bowden, a streak which hangs in the balance today.
Among the possible destinations should Clemson win are Charlotte (Continental Tire Bowl, almost assured if North Carolina loses to Duke) and Boise, Idaho (MPC Computers Bowl). There may be other possibilities outside the ACC tie-ins, as well. The Pac-10, for instance, may not have enough bowl-eligible teams to fulfill its requirements.
But at this point Bowden doesn't care where his team lands. He just wants the sixth win so his seniors can complete a perfect record of posteason appearances.
"I'll get another chance to go to a bowl game but this is (the seniors') last shot," he said. "I've been to a bunch of bowl games and hopefully I'll go to more in the future, but I am most interested in helping the seniors get to a bowl game."
To do that, the Tigers will have to continue a pair of trends in recent wins over the Gamecocks.
First, and most important, Clemson needs to stop the USC running game. The Gamecocks average 179 yards per game on the ground. Clemson has allowed just over 60 yards per game in its last five outings. South Carolina's offense is at its most effective when Demetris Summers and/or Cory Boyd are eating up big chunks of yardage.
Quarterback Syvelle Newton, too, is a running threat. But shut him down, and limit Summer and Boyd, and suddenly Newton is a dropback passer who has more interceptions (6) than touchdowns (5) on the season.
Secondly, and only slightly less important, is how well Clemson's offense plays.
The Tigers have been hurt by turnovers all season, as evidenced by quarterback Charlie Whitehurst's 7-16 touchdown-to-interception ratio. If Clemson can take care of the football, it has a chance for its fifth win in six games.
"I never envisioned (all the turnovers), and we've struggled offensively more than any other year I have been a head coach," Bowden said. "We've played some good teams, but everybody plays good teams, and the turnovers early on really led to us struggling.
"I never anticipated we would struggle like we have on offense."
3 Keys to Victory
1. Stop the Run
Clemson's fortunes this season turned when the defense got a clue against the run. After allowing over 200 per game through the first five weeks, that averaged has dropped to just over 60 in the last five. Much of Clemson's success vs. the Gamecocks under Tommy Bowden has come because they've slowed the USC rushing attack. No sense in changing the formula now.
2. Less offensive offense
Every week we keep waiting for the Clemson offense to break out, waiting for the proverbial light to go on and for everything to fall into place. Quite frankly, we're running out of weeks. Duke bothered Clemson with constant pressure, a tactic which offensive coordinator Mike O'Cain admitted "confused" him. South Carolina's usual mode of operation is to try and get pressure with just the front four, but don't be surprised if they blitz a little more often this week. Regardless, the Tiger offense is well past due. If they're going to snap out of it, this is the week.
3. Steve who?
The Gamecocks and their fans are likely to be stoked to the gills Saturday, and not just because it's Clemson week. Regardless of whether or not reports of Steve Spurrier's arrival in Columbia are true, USC will be riding a huge wave of emotion generated by all the publicity the subject is garnered this week. So Clemson needs something early - long touchdown pass, turnover returned for a score, etc. - to quickly deflate the Gamecocks' balloon.