It has been a disappointing season for the Gamecocks (4-7, 3-5 SEC), and a bit of late drama was inserted on Monday as well. University president Robert Caslen told the Florence Morning News that athletic director Ray Tanner had contacted Florida State to ask about the steps they took in buying out former head coach Willie Taggart's contract. Everyone immediately went into denial mode following the report, and Caslen then stated that Will Muschamp will return as head coach next season.
But the story created a distraction that was not needed, especially with the mighty Tigers (11-0, 8-0 ACC) coming to down. Dabo Swinney’s crew is once again a national title contender, and they are two wins away from hearing their name called on the College Football Playoff Selection Show for the fifth straight year.
Clemson at South Carolina
When: Saturday, Nov. 30 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Clemson -26
When Clemson Has the Ball
The Clemson offense kept on rolling in their destruction of Wake Forest two weeks ago. The Tigers have scored over 50 points in four straight games and reached 45 in six straight. Clemson did fail to rush for 200 yards against the Demon Deacons for the first time since the North Carolina game, but Travis Etienne still had 121 yards on 16 carries, and quarterback Trevor Lawrence was on point.
Lawrence is 10th in America in passing yards per attempt (9.2), but with increased production in the running game, that number has shot up in recent weeks. Tiger receivers are getting more opportunities downfield, as defenses have to pay more attention to Etienne, and Lawrence is connecting on those chances. This mix is difficult for anyone to stop, and South Carolina is no better equipped to handle Clemson’s diversity than anyone else the Tigers have faced in recent weeks.
The Gamecocks definitely have playmakers on the defensive side of the ball, though. Pass rushers Javon Kinlaw and D.J. Wonnum can get into the opposing backfield and create chaos. Ernest Jones has had a nice year at linebacker, and the corner combo of Israel Mukuamu and Jaycee Horn have combined to break up 16 passes. But the Gamecocks allowed 319 rushing yards to Texas A&M in their most recent game and 351 yards passing to Tennessee a few weeks ago. Clemson is vastly more talented than both of those teams in both aspects, and they will analyze early on where South Carolina is vulnerable and attack in the right way.
When South Carolina Has the Ball
Injuries have hampered the South Carolina offense in a big way this season. It started with the loss of quarterback Jake Bentley early in the season and has continued the whole way through. Leading receiver Bryan Edwards is unlikely to play due to a knee injury. Second-leading receiver Shi Smith is listed as probable but is battling a hamstring issue. And leading rusher Tavien Feaster, a Clemson transfer that will undoubtedly do everything he can to play in this game, has missed the last two games with a groin injury.
In the most trying of circumstances, both from a team and personal perspective, Ryan Hilinski has filled in admirably for the injured Bentley. On the season, Hilinski has completed 58 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns against four interceptions. The freshman quarterback — and the entire team — has been most effective when the offense has been able to run the ball. That has been a big problem over the last few weeks, as the Gamecocks have failed to top 80 yards or 2.6 yards per carry in three of their last four games. Not surprisingly, South Carolina lost all three of those games.
Running the ball obviously won't be easy against Clemson, but it is their only hope. The Tigers have the best pass defense in the ACC and trail only Ohio State nationally. While their run defense is very good (third in the ACC and 19th overall), it is the weaker of the two aspects of their defense. The problem is, when Clemson gets a lead, teams have to throw, and the Tigers pounce. If that scenario plays out, defensive coordinator Brent Venables will unleash all his weapons and make things miserable for Hilinski.
During its era of dominance, Clemson has owned the Gamecocks. But South Carolina made small strides during the past couple of years, losing by 49 points in 2016, then 24 in '17, and finally 21 last November. But it is not likely that the trend continues. The Tigers are locked in and have had two weeks to prepare solely for the Gamecocks. I do expect Will Muschamp's team to come out with passion and play hard for their embattled head coach early on. But as the game drags on, Clemson will wear down South Carolina more and more. Clemson will have control by halftime and will once again be playing reserves for at least the final 15 minutes.
Prediction: Clemson 45, South Carolina 13
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.