College Football is Back!

06 Sep 2023

Clemson and Carolina have much to prove for 2023

By Worthy Evans

 

As summer winds down, and the sports radio shows boil over with talk of transfer portals, name-image-likeness deals and dying athletic conferences (looking at you Pac-12), we in South Carolina ponder the important questions while inching toward the kickoff of another college football season.

Will the Clemson offense ignite the way it once did when it played in four national championship games from 2015-2019?

Can South Carolina follow up on what seems to be head coach Shane Beamer’s breakthrough year in 2022?

Whether talking about the Gamecocks (8-5 overall, 4-4 Southeastern Conference) or the Tigers (11-3, 8-0 Atlantic Coast Conference), dozens of questions, along with ponderings, musings and prognostications fill the hours—and pages in a certain monthly magazine.

Let’s Start with Clemson

Head coach Dabo Swinney (161-39) enters his 14th season as Tigers head coach. For the Tigers faithful, just him walking the sidelines is a ray of hope. He’s won two national championships and eight ACC titles, with more to come.

Not surprisingly, the Tigers are a preseason favorite to win another conference championship. Among the players to watch this season is running back, kickoff returner and all-purpose offensive player Will Shipley. A junior, Shipley already has close to 2,000 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns in his career. He has 54 catches for 358 yards, and as a kickoff returner averages 26.1 yards per return.

Sophomore Cade Klubnik will start at quarterback. The Austin, TX native got his first start against North Carolina in the ACC championship game in December, throwing for 279 yards and a touchdown and running for a second TD in the Tigers’ 39-10 win.

New offensive coordinator Garrett Riley takes charge of the offense. Riley’s offense at Texas Christian University vaulted the Horned Frogs into the College Football playoff last season, where they beat Michigan in a thriller, but fell to Georgia, which claimed another national title. TCU had the ninth highest scoring offense in the nation, averaging 38.8 points a game.

So what can the Tigers do this season with a young backfield and a new coordinator? Expect some challenges as Riley works in his game plan with Klubnik and a corps of young wide receivers. But also expect some flashes of lightning if they find their way to the end zone from behind a stout and experienced offensive line.

And the defense? No worries at the outset. When longtime coordinator Brent Venables left to become Oklahoma’s head coach in 2021, Wes Goodwin was promoted from within. Injuries hurt plagued the defense in 2022. This season the Tigers return healthy with another solid defensive line. Top linebackers Jeremiah Trotter Jr. and Barrett Carter return, and the defensive secondary has some key returners as well.

A Touch on Last Season

The Tigers’ 2022 effort marked the end of quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei’s career at Clemson. He went 22-6 as a starter over two-plus seasons, passing for 5,681 yards and 36 touchdowns to 17 interceptions, and completed 59.8 percent of his passes (515-for-861). Uiagalelei transferred to Oregon State with two years of eligibility remaining.

Clemson may have gone 8-0 in Atlantic Coast Conference play and won its eighth ACC championship under head coach Dabo Swinney, but otherwise the 2022 season was a disappointment. Not only did the Tigers see their national championship hopes squashed with a loss to their in-state rival, Clemson also took a 31-14 Orange Bowl defeat to Tennessee.

Games to Watch (besides THE game)

Clemson kicks off the season at Duke Sept. 4. What usually has been an easy game for the Tigers may be surprising, if the Blue Devils return to last year’s performance. They are coming off a 9-5 effort, capped with a 30-13 crushing of Central Florida in the Military Bowl.

Florida State comes to Death Valley Sept. 23. The Seminoles have been a close rival since former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden matched up with his father, coaching legend Bobby Bowden. While the coaches have changed, the rivalry may get fired up this year, as a young Seminoles team looks to do better than their 10-3 season that ended with a 35-32 victory over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl

Clemson takes on Notre Dame at home Nov. 4. The Tigers traveled to South Bend last year and it did not go well, a 35-14 drubbing. The Fighting Irish closed out their 9-4 year holding off a recharged South Carolina team (I’ll get to them shortly) 45-38 in the Tax Slayer Gator Bowl.

The Tarheels head to Clemson Nov. 18 in a rematch of the 2022 ACC championship. North Carolina lost the last four games of the 2022 season, but head coach Mack Brown landed some top recruits and transfers in the offseason. Under Brown, who won a national championship with Texas in 2005, anything can happen.

South Carolina

This is Coach Beamer’s third year as head coach of the Gamecocks and he’s 15-11. While the 46-year-old son of former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer doesn’t have the record (yet) to match his father’s, USC fans got to see the team gel in a topsy-turvy 2022 season.

The Gamecocks started 1-2 with losses to a strong Arkansas team and national champion Georgia. From there USC reeled off a four-game winning streak, including victories over ranked Kentucky and their first win over Texas A&M since the Aggies joined the Southeastern Conference.

An embarrassing beatdown at Florida threatened to derail the season, but Beamer’s positivity (and a lot of senior leadership) may have kept the team going.

The Gamecocks faced No.5 Tennessee after that embarrassment at Florida. Volunteers Quarterback Hendon Hooker led an explosive offense and sportswriters had visions of him winning the Heisman Trophy because of it.

USC dispelled those visions of Hooker and his trophy, and head coach Josh Heupel and his national championship hopes, and really quickly. Quarterback Spencer Rattler, himself a Heisman Trophy candidate as a freshman snap-taker at Oklahoma, led the Gamecocks to a 63-38 victory.

Rattler finished the night completing 30 of 37 passes for 438 yards and six TDs, with no interceptions. Before his lightning-in-a-bottle night, Rattler threw for an average of 198 yards per game in 10 games. He had eight touchdowns to nine interceptions.

That game sharply changed the direction of the season—and maybe the program under Coach Beamer. The next week the Gamecocks overcame a 14-0 deficit to defeat No.7 Clemson 31-30 at Death Valley.

The Gamecocks went on to lose 45-38 to Notre Dame in the Tax Slayer Gator Bowl, but with the end of the season there came hope for an even better run in 2023.

The 2023 Season

This fall, Gamecock fans will tune in to see whether the highlights of last season—Tennessee, Clemson—can overshadow the low moments—Georgia, Florida.

Rattler returns, along with receiver Antwane “Juice” Wells, and several versatile players in the backfield. Provided the offensive line holds up (and this is a big provision here), the offense under second-year coordinator Dowell Loggains maybe effective and even exciting. Stress maybe, because the defense, which provided the foundation for the Tennessee victory among others, may be a problem area. The Gamecocks return just four starters on defense because of graduation and transfers, so the pressure will be on Rattler and the offense clicking early on while the new faces in the defensive front and backfield get time to mature and gel.

Games to Watch (besides THE game)

South Carolina opens the season versus North Carolina at Charlotte Sept. 2. The last time they played each other, the Gamecocks dominated the Tarheels 38-21 in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl in 2021. In one of the grosser championship moments, the world got to see Coach Beamer getting doused with watered-down mayonnaise.

USC heads to Knoxville Sept. 30 to take on Tennessee. Yes, Carolina manhandled the Vols at Williams Brice last season, but Tennessee destroyed Carolina 45-20 at Neyland Stadium in 2021.

Florida comes to Williams-Brice Stadium Oct. 14. The Gamecocks will love another crack at the Gators after last year’s loss.

Noting the SEC, arguably the toughest football conference in the nation, Carolina’s full schedule is far from easy. Familiar opponents can surprise them, and in turn the Gamecocks have been known to sneak up on conference powers.

As I’ve thought every year, being a rare fan of both Carolina and Clemson, I’m just going to have to watch everything play out.

The Game

OK. Clemson visits Williams-Brice Nov. 25. The Tigers lead the series 72-43-4 and have won seven out of the last eight games. In those seven wins over the Gamecocks, the Tigers outscored them 286-104.

Last year, Carolina overcame a two-score deficit and fought its way past Clemson the rest of the way in a 31-30 win. Through it all, 81,000-plus fans at Death Valley got to see the best and worst of Rattler and Uiagalelei.

Rattler threw two first-half interceptions, one of which was Trotter’s 35 yard touchdown return. The other erased a touchdown when Clemson defender R.J. Mickens picked Rattler off in the end zone for a touchback.

Yet the night belonged to the Gamecocks defense, and to Rattler, who threw for 360 yards and two touchdowns and ran for a third score.

Besides being the first win over Clemson in eight tries, it was the Gamecocks’ second straight win over a Top-10 program—and it officially eliminated the Tigers’ hopes to reach the College Football Playoff.

Oh yeah, the win snapped Clemson’s seven-game winning streak and 40-game home winning streak that dated to 2016.

By kickoff, we could see a red-hot Gamecocks offense go up against a stout Tigers defense, or we could see a resurgent Clemson offense wear down a valiant but inexperienced Carolina defense. It’s way, way too early to tell.

After all, there’s a whole season full of breakthroughs and heartbreaks before getting to that storied rivalry game, and that’s what I love about this time of year. You just never know how things will work out.

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