CLEMSON, S.C. -- Clemson's regular-season football finale on Saturday against South Carolina may be nothing more than just bragging rights -- at least for the Tigers.
Regardless of whether Clemson wins or loses against the archrival Gamecocks, Saturday's game won't have any bearing on the Tigers' bowl situation.
Clemson coach Tommy Bowden was interrupted during his weekly press conference on Tuesday by Gator Bowl chairman Larry Jenkins, who formally invited the Tigers to the Jan. 1 bowl game in Jacksonville, Fla.
Bowden seemed somewhat shocked at the invitation, turned to sports information director Tim Bourret and asked, "Can I accept this?"
After Bourret told Bowden he could accept the bid, a reporter asked Bowden if Clemson's Gator Bowl berth would be a distraction as the Tigers prepare to play host to South Carolina (3:30 p.m., ABC-Channel 6).
"I don't think it'll affect the players," Bowden said. "I believe these seniors, this will be their fourth bowl game. I know it won't affect the staff. An issue that I mentioned earlier, I'm anxious to see how our team responds with a bowl bid secure as well as South Carolina.
"I don't think it'll be a distraction; I'm anxious to see how hungry we are to win nine games. That hasn't been done here in 10 years during the regular season. That's what I'm anxious to see. But I don't think it'll be a distraction."
The Tigers are the first team in the country to accept a New Year's Day bowl invitation. TCU accepted an invitation on Saturday to play in the Mobile Alabama Bowl.
The remainder of the bowl bids likely won't be released until Dec. 3 after the Southeastern, Big 12 and Western Athletic conferences' championship games are completed.
Clemson's opponent likely will be either Notre Dame or Virginia Tech, but the Tigers probably won't know for at least three more weeks since both teams have an outside chance of getting into the Bowl Championship Series.
Gator Bowl officials have indicated they want a Virginia Tech-Clemson rematch, a game Tech won 31-11 last season. The bowl officials want to showcase two of the nation's top quarterbacks in Clemson's Woody Dantzler and Virginia Tech's Michael Vick. But they won't turn down a Notre Dame-Clemson matchup
Bowden said he preferred to focus more on a "Dantzler versus (South Carolina quarterback) Phil Petty matchup."
Despite a bowl invitation in hand, Clemson players insist the attention is on South Carolina, not on their trip to Jacksonville.
"I grew up 30 minutes from here (in Easley, S.C.)," said offensive lineman Will Merritt. "This game is the biggest game of my life. Growing up, you waited all season for the Clemson-Carolina game. As a player, growing up in this area, knowing what the in-state rivalry is about, you wait all season long.
"It's the last game of the season. For three straight seasons now, we've beaten them. It makes the (next) year go by so much smoother."
Clemson has won the past three games and nine of the past 12 against the Gamecocks. But if you ask senior free safety Robert Carswell, he said it doesn't matter if both teams are winless, because it's still the biggest game of the season for both schools.
"If we were 0-10 and they were 0-10, you can throw out the records," Carswell said. "It's time to play; it's Clemson versus South Carolina."
Reach Tim Morse at (706) 823-3216.
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