The Clemson Tigers enter the final week of the regular season with a chance at winning the ACC Atlantic Division, but the primary outcome of their matchup with the South Carolina Gamecocks — given the Tigers' are done with conference games — will simply be a determination of the winner of the annual Palmetto Bowl. Clemson leads the all-time series 71-42-4, thanks to wins in each of its last six meetings with South Carolina between 2014 and 2019 (did not play in 2020, first time not meeting since 1908) and in 22 of the last 32, largely surrounding a five-win stretch by the Gamecocks between 2009 and 2013.
Simply put, win streaks haven't been the theme for South Carolina, neither in 2021 nor in this series altogether. The Gamecocks' five-game win streak mentioned earlier was their first in nearly half a century, as they'd been held to singular (non-consecutive) wins over the Tigers ever since grabbing three straight between 1968 to 1970. This year's Gamecocks won their first two games of the season, lost their next two, and have alternated wins and losses over their next seven games. Last week, South Carolina (6-5, 3-5 SEC) allowed 14 first-quarter points to Auburn before holding those Tigers to three points over the final 45 minutes while the Gamecocks tallied three touchdowns across the second and third quarters to close their SEC slate with a 21-17 win.
The start to the season was much of the same for Clemson (8-3, 6-2), who was held to 21 or fewer points in all but one of its first seven games – three of them ultimately resulting in losses. But Dabo Swinney's team has turned it around in the final month of the season, taking down Florida State and Louisville before closing its home schedule with a dominant 21-point win over Wake Forest this past Saturday. The victory boosted the Tigers back into the latest College Football Playoff rankings.
No. 23 Clemson at South Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 27 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Clemson -11.5
When Clemson Has the Ball
The Tigers have scored at least 30 points in each of the last four games — surpassing 40 in each of the last two — after failing to muster any more than 21 against any FBS team (scored 49 against South Carolina State in Week 2) in the first half of the season. Strong starts have been optimal for Clemson, as the Tigers have been leading at the half in three of their last four wins, with the 30-24 victory over Louisville on Nov. 6 as the game was tied 17-17 through two quarters.
DJ Uiagalelei wasn’t exactly prolific in the win over the Demon Deacons, as he completed 11 of his 19 passes for 208 yards, a touchdown and an interception. The first-year starting quarterback has led the Tigers to nine wins but enters Week 13 in the bottom 20 nationally in completion rate (55.1 percent) and with the eighth-lowest yards per attempt (6.07) in the FBS. When he’s connected with his targets downfield, they’ve usually been in the direction of Justyn Ross — the team's leading receiver but slated to miss Saturday’s game after having surgery to fix a stress fracture in his foot — and Beaux Collins, who has managed nearly 15 yards per catch on his 26 receptions this season — boosted by a four-catch, 137-yard effort with a touchdown in the win over Wake Forest.
There's been more support from the running game lately too, as Will Shipley and Kobe Pace have combined for 1,000 yards on the ground thanks to a huge performance against the Demon Deacons. Pace led the Tigers on Saturday with 191 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 24 carries, while Shipley added 112 yards and two more scores on 19 attempts.
Don’t be surprised if the ground game once again is the focus for the Tigers in Columbia, as the Gamecocks enter this week’s matchup among the bottom third nationally in stopping the run (171.1 ypg) but third in the SEC vs. the pass, and sixth in scoring and total defense. South Carolina does thrive in limiting opponents’ success through the air, leading the SEC in interceptions and total takeaways with 14 and 22, good for ninth and eighth, respectively, in the FBS. Sixth-year senior safety Jaylan Foster is an anchor in the back end — going into the final week of the regular season as one of just nine players in the FBS with five interceptions — while Kingsley "JJ" Enagbare is tied for the SEC lead in solo tackles by a defensive lineman with 26.
When South Carolina Has the Ball
Offense has been a struggle for the Gamecocks this year, as only two teams — Eastern Illinois (FCS) and Florida — have allowed South Carolina to eclipse 30 points in a single game. The Gamecocks scored 30 first-half points en route to a dominant 40-17 win over Florida in Week 10, but that was their first time doing so against an FBS (let alone a Power 5) opponent in 2021.
With just a shade over 200 passing yards per game, the Gamecocks find themselves faring better than only Vanderbilt among SEC peers. Jason Brown attempted just 15 passes in the win over Auburn last week — completing 10 of them — but connected on three touchdowns in the four-point win. Zaquandre White had a nice game in the win, finishing with 99 rushing yards on 16 carries but also hauling in three passes for another 68 yards and a touchdown. Josh Vann likewise added a score among his three catches (for 37 yards). Vann enters this weekend averaging nearly 16.5 yards per catch this season, the fifth-best rate in the SEC.
South Carolina will have to do all it can to capitalize if and when it can get deep inside Clemson territory on Saturday as the Tigers boast the fourth-best red zone defense in the FBS with just 64.3 of opponents' trip inside the 20 ending in points. The Tigers lead the ACC — and rank eighth nationally — with 16.4 points allowed per game, thanks to five of their first six opponents failing to eclipse the 20-point mark although two of those games still ended in losses. Clemson also has been one of the best in all of college football in causing havoc behind the line of scrimmage, pacing its conference in tackles for a loss (7.6 per game), and only barely trail Coastal champ Pittsburgh (3.73) in sacks per game (3.6). Those marks also rank fourth and third, respectively, in the FBS.
Clemson enters the annual in-state showdown with all of the momentum, while South Carolina has truly had an up-and-down campaign throughout the season. A Clemson win and Wake Forest loss (at Boston College) would give the Tigers their seventh division title in as many seasons and send them to the ACC Championship Game for a rematch with Pittsburgh. But don’t count out the Gamecocks, who have made a habit of winning games when they could hang in until the fourth quarter and avoid getting outplayed in the opening minutes.
Prediction: Clemson 31, South Carolina 20
Podcast: Week 13 Preview, Predictions, and Picks Against the Spread
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.