Fourth-ranked Clemson hosts rival South Carolina tonight in the 114th meeting between the two rivals in Death Valley. The game is scheduled to kickoff at 7:30 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN.
So who as the edge and why? Here is a breakdown of the key position battles that could play a role in the outcome.
Clemson’s red zone offense vs. South Carolina’s red zone defense: The Tigers rank just 81st nationally in red zone efficiency, converting 82 percent of the time when they enter the opponent’s 20-yard line. In 55 attempts, they have scored on 45 of their trips inside the red zone, including 36 touchdowns. However, the 10 times Clemson has not scored, in seven of those occasions it turned the football over – the worst figure in the FBS. South Carolina’s defense on the other hand ranks ninth in red zone defense. The Gamecocks are allowing opponents to convert just 71 percent of the time on 41 attempts. Twelve times the opposition failed to score, and in most cases the Gamecocks forced a turnover. So who has the edge? Carolina plays a bend but don’t break defense and it has worked for them. However, Clemson faced a Wake defense that was really good in the red zone last week as well and went 4-for-4, all touchdowns. Can the Tigers do the same to the Gamecocks? If the Tigers keep quarterback Deshaun Watson involved in the running game, then it changes the way the Tigers will attack the Gamecocks. He had two rushing touchdowns inside the five-yard line against Wake Forest. They also have Mike Williams, who leads Clemson with seven touchdown passes. Advantage: Clemson
Clemson’s defensive line vs. South Carolina’s offensive line: It’s been a struggle for South Carolina’s running game all season. The Gamecocks are averaging just 3.8 yards per carry and just 140.5 rushing yards per game. The Gamecocks have also allowed 33 sacks, which is last in the SEC and 113th nationally. Left guard Zack Bailey is perhaps the best player on the offensive line, but he and the rest of the O-line will have one of their toughest challenges to date. The Clemson defensive line is considered one of the country’s best. The Tigers rank seventh nationally in sacks with 39 and third in tackles for loss (96). Clemson, who is led by defensive tackles Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence, as well as defensive ends Christian Wilkins, Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell, is allowing opponents 3.5 yards per carry. The defensive line has 27.5 sacks and 48.5 tackles for loss. Advantage: Clemson
Clemson’s Deshaun Watson vs. Carolina head coach Will Muschamp: Why is this a matchup to watch? Muschamp is known for his defenses, especially with his secondaries. As a secondary coach is where he cut his teeth and is not surprising the Gamecocks have 13 interceptions and are allowing opponents to average just 189.1 yards per game through the air. Carolina is 17th in pass defense and is 18th in passing efficiency defense. The Gamecocks have allowed just 12 touchdown pass, which is 20th nationally. Watson is one of the best quarterbacks in the country. He leads the ACC in passing yards (3,279) and passing yards per game (298.1) and is tied for first in touchdown passes (28). He is also second in completion percentage (66.4). Unfortunately for Watson and Clemson, the junior has thrown 13 interceptions, which is last in the ACC. Watson has struggled at times this season with his decision making and reading some coverages. By the way, nine of Watson’s 13 interceptions have come in Death Valley, and five of his interceptions have come in the end zone. Look for Muschamp to try and confuse him and force him or bait him into making mistakes. Advantage: South Carolina
Bottom line: As we all learned from the Pitt game from a few weeks ago, there is a reason why you play the games. There is a lot on the line for Clemson. Essentially, this is a playoff game for the Tigers, which will set up another playoff game next week in the ACC Championship Game against Virginia Tech. If the Tigers win, they are in the College Football Playoff. But to get in, they have to beat the Gamecocks first, which does not look like as easy as it once did. However, the state championship is also on the line and the taste of five straight losses to the Gamecocks is still in their mouths. Look for Clemson’s defense to lead the way as the Tigers make it three straight wins over Carolina.
Prediction: Clemson 24, South Carolina 10