If you’re counting at home, it’s 36 days until the first Saturday of college football season.
If you’re counting at Clemson, it’s 127 days until the one Saturday that seems to matter most to the Tigers.
Since the end of the 2013 season, every position meeting room at Clemson has included a clock on the wall counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until Nov. 29 when the Tigers play host to state rival South Carolina at Death Valley.
The biggest digits on each clock, however, are painted directly below the LED timer – 0-5.
To say the Gamecocks’ unprecedented five-game winning streak in the Palmetto State rivalry has gotten into the Tigers’ collective head would be an understatement.
“It’s a high priority,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said this week at the Atlantic Coast Conference’s annual preseason media days. “We want to get it done.”
There might be bigger rivalries in college football – Alabama-Auburn, Florida-Florida State, Ohio State-Michigan, USC-UCLA – but it’s hard to beat the growing entertainment value of the Clemson-South Carolina animosity since Swinney and Steve Spurrier became the principle mouthpieces.
Spurrier is the master of the verbal jab and uses it with surgical precision. Swinney isn’t one to hold his tongue on the receiving end. They claim a mutual respect, but that doesn’t come across in their sound bites.
“I have great respect for coach Spurrier, but we’re just from different planets,” Swinney said. “He’s from Pluto, I’m from Mars.”
Spurrier’s response on ESPN: “Dabo probably thinks there’s only, what, nine planets out there. I think I read where Pluto may not be considered one now.”
Spurrier insists “it’s just a bunch of talking,” but all the talking certainly has ratcheted up an already intense dislike from boosters that derisively refer to each other as “Chickens” and “Taters.”
“The only thing I remind Dabo of is his comments three years ago of the real Carolina being in Chapel Hill and the real USC being in California,” Spurrier said in his visit to ESPN headquarters earlier this week. “Sometimes he forgets he throws some stuff out there also. He wants to make people believe that I’m the only one that throws a little stuff out there.”
Both of them started the talking countdown to 2014 at the conclusion on their respective bowl victories in January. After being presented the trophy at the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla., Spurrier grabbed the microphone and cackled with almost maniacal glee while offering an un-instigated barb at the Tigers.
“These two Capital One Bowls in a row are pretty nice,” he shouted, “but that state championship ain’t bad either.”
Two days later Swinney offered a rebuttal from the Orange Bowl podium in Miami.
“We’re the first team from South Carolina to ever win a BCS bowl,” he said.
Spurrier, of course, had an answer for that this week.
“We’ve never even been to” a BCS bowl, Spurrier said. “I’ll admit to that, although we beat them about every year. They get there and we don’t. That’s just the way it is. The SEC can only send two teams and the ACC sends two. We’ve got too many good teams going.
“That’s just the way it’s worked out. He’s correct. But would you call the Orange Bowl a BCS bowl? They won the national championship there in 1981. I asked Danny (Ford), ‘Have they completely forgotten about you and your team in ’81?’ He said, ‘I think they have.’ ”
Swinney is operating from a distinctly disadvantaged position – which is not something Clemson coaches are accustomed to in this 118-year-old rivalry. He’s lost decisively in five consecutive games after winning his first shot against the Gamecocks while he still held the interim head coach tag. Even the Tigers’ unprecedented consecutive 11-win seasons is overshadowed by South Carolina’s record three in a row.
Last season South Carolina finished fourth in the final poll, Clemson eighth. The year before the Gamecocks were eighth, Tigers 11th. The year before that it was South Carolina ninth, Clemson 22nd. So flipping the outcome of that annual nonconference game could have a major national impact as college football enters the playoff era.
“That’s certainly something that has really been a painful part of our program for the last five years from an in‑state standpoint but also nationally,” Swinney said. “We finished seventh (in coaches’ poll) this year and they finished fourth, so that game is very important from a state pride standpoint, just like it always has been. But it’s become very important for our bigger goals, as well, from a national standpoint.”
The countdown clock treatment is a stark contrast to the way Spurrier has handled the in-state obsession with the rivalry. One of the first things he did after taking the Gamecocks job before the 2005 season was remove all the “Beat Clemson” signage in the football facilities. His emphasis is on bigger Southeastern Conference goals.
“Clemson used to pretty much own South Carolina in football, no question about it,” Spurrier said last week at the SEC media days. “We have a state championship trophy. If you ask our fans at South Carolina, I can assure you a majority would say we would rather beat Clemson than win the SEC. That is how big it is to them, that one game. Personally I’d rather win the SEC. I don’t mind saying that. Personally that’s the bigger trophy.”
Clemson has plenty to prove long before it reaches that Nov. 29 date with the Gamecocks. The season opener in 36 days between the hedges in Athens, Ga., is the kind of thing that should have everyone’s attention. Two games later they travel to Tallahassee, Fla., to take on defending BCS champion Florida State in a game that may decide who wins the ACC Atlantic Division.
But that Gamecocks game-clock will keep ticking down throughout it all.
“We want us to be the best, and we want to win that game,” said Cole Stoudt, who takes over for Tajh Boyd at quarterback. “That’s the emphasis that we have put on, and over the past few years losing to them has kind of not sat well with us. So this year we’re hopefully going to turn that around this year.
“We don’t want to just focus on that game because we have Georgia, Florida State, we have games before that. We’re going to take it a week at a time and we’re always going to have that reminder in the back of our head, ‘Hey, we’ve got South Carolina coming up.’ ”
Rather than in the back of their heads, it’s right in front of their faces every time they walk in the meeting rooms.
Clemson fans are naturally excited about the possibilities, snapping up all 52,000 season tickets. ACC and playoff goals are certainly realistic options again, but there’s one omission on the Swinney/Tigers résumé that matters.
“When you walk in our team room every day and you look at our team goals, we’ve hit every team goal on there in the past five years with the exception of winning our state championship,” Swinney said.
Only 127 shopping days remain before the clocks come down or the timer resets to 364 days above an unfathomable “0-6.”