COLUMBIA — How do you make another 10-win season and a slew of offensive records seem meaningless?
Lose to an arch-rival for the fifth consecutive year.
Head coach Dabo Swinney and gifted quarterback Tajh Boyd have brought hype and glory and prestige to Clemson, but their legacies currently have a garnet stain on them with a growing paralysis against South Carolina.
In the most highly acclaimed top-10 matchup in the 111-game history of the Palmetto series, the Tigers turned a late 17-17 tie into another double-digit loss with a series of stumbling, bumbling, fumbling plays on offense, defense and special teams in the final 16 minutes of a 31-17 defeat at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Those final 16 minutes featured an offsides penalty on fourth-and-1, two flailing pass interference penalties, two fumbles and two interceptions. Three of those turnovers came off the hands of Boyd – the most accomplished quarterback in Clemson history who will leave with zero victories in the matchup that matters most to both fan bases.
Swinney hasn’t figured out how to beat Steve Spurrier since he held the interim coach label in 2008.
“I don’t know, it just happens,” said Spurrier of South Carolina’s unprecedented five-game winning streak over Clemson. “They don’t play well when they play us. ... It just keeps working out for us.”
Things didn’t entirely work out for the Gamecocks on Saturday and their Blanche Dubois existence finally ran out of kindness from strangers. After a pair of Auburn miracles had South Carolina seemingly poised on the brink of a SEC Championship berth they might actually win, Missouri ended up taking their place.
“We’re a very blessed team. Hopefully that will keep up,” Spurrier said before being informed that Missouri had just retaken the lead late. “I thought we were a team of destiny. Looks like Auburn might be a team of destiny.”
South Carolina has to settle for a consolation prize that most Gamecocks fans dearly prefer.
“I know our fans will enjoy it year-round,” Spurrier said.
It’s another feeling entirely in the Upstate.
Perhaps Swinney needs to find the mythical “Eastaboga Community College” and see if they can’t substitute it for South Carolina on the tail end of Clemson’s football schedule. The feel-good vibe he’s been building in Clemson keeps fizzling in the finale.
Trying to explain his program’s inability to be competitive against its primary in-state rival in the game that most defines the mood for the ensuing 12 months in the Palmetto State, Swinney invented a new college that perhaps is located on the banks of the Westobou.
“All I can do is give credit to South Carolina, too,” he said on Tuesday. “They’ve been the better coached team, they’ve played better, there’s really no excuses. It’s not like we’ve lost to Eastaboga Community College. They’ve had a very good football team that has beaten a lot of people. They’ve been better than us.”
At least Swinney has conceded to calling this a rivalry now. Two years ago, after a 21-point drubbing that preceded Clemson’s only Atlantic Coast Conference championship in two decades, Swinney launched into an epic rant that tried to diminish the Gamecocks’ recent accomplishments against him by using historical context.
“There’s a lot of rivalries out there and this is more of a domination,” he said of the all-time series record that heavily favors the Tigers.
“That’s the fact. My kids’ grandkids won’t ever live long enough to see this become a rivalry. It is what it is.”
Nobody will have to wait three generations to see it. His three young daughters can just look and see that their father isn’t contributing to the Clemson “domination.” His Tigers teams – some of the most talented in Clemson history – are helping narrow the gap. Even a No. 6 ranking and third consecutive 10-win season couldn’t get the Tigers past their hated neighbors.
After a 15-play, 88-yard Clemson drive tied the game with 3:01 left in the third quarter, it looked like the Tigers might finally turn the tables back. But with the Gamecocks facing fourth-and-1 at their own 34, Spurrier coaxed the Tigers into an offsides with a double count by Connor Shaw that triggered the go-ahead score.
Spurrier started off struggling against the Tigers but now owns a 6-3 rivalry record.
“I was 1-3 for awhile there,” Spurrier said. “We weren’t doing much bragging there. ... We don’t talk about them all year. That’s something we used to do here.”
Winning against the Gamecocks is something Clemson used to do as well.