Dabo Swinney understands what led to Clemson’s rivalry series with South Carolina being interrupted last fall. But nearly a year later, the Tigers’ head coach still isn’t sure why it had to happen.
As concern regarding the coronavirus pandemic grew last season, some conferences either delayed their college football seasons until the spring or canceled them. The Atlantic Coast Conference and the Southeastern Conferences revised theirs.
The ACC went to a 10+1 scheduling model, meaning each team could play 10 conference games and one non-conference game as long as it was played in the ACC school’s home state. But the SEC did away with non-conference games all together, which did away with a rivalry game between Clemson (8-3, 6-2 ACC) and South Carolina (6-5, 3-5 SEC) that had been played for 111 consecutive years.
Part of the SEC’s reasoning for playing a conference-only slate was to try to limit exposure of coaches and student-athletes to COVID-19 by cutting down on travel, which didn’t sit well with Swinney at the time.
“It’s kind of crazy, to be honest with you,” Swinney said then. “To think we are going to go all the way to Notre Dame, and they are going to go to Texas or Mississippi or wherever to play. But we can’t meet each other.”
As Swinney reflected on that Tuesday with the renewing of the in-state rivalry just days away, his thoughts on last year’s hiatus hadn’t changed much. Adding to the disappointment, he said, was the fact Clemson, which was supposed to host last year’s meeting, lost a home game against a team just 130 miles down the road.
“We’ve got to go to Notre Dame, but we can’t get a bus ride up (from Columbia)?” Swinney said. “It was just kind of silly to me. When you’re dealing with the COVID stuff, it didn’t make any sense to me. Felt like there should’ve been some exceptions out of conference, but those were decisions the conference people made.
“It didn’t affect us. But it just was a disappointment for both sides. I’m sure they were disappointed, too. They had an opportunity to have a tradition you look forward to every year, and all of a sudden you can’t do it.”
The teams will meet Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium, making it back-to-back trips to South Carolina’s home field to play the game for Clemson. But Swinney and his players are just glad it’s back on.
“I have a great appreciation for rivalry games anyway growing up in Alabama for 33 years there and living the Alabama-Auburn experience. That was kind of just a way of life,” said Swinney, who grew up in Pelham, Alabama, and played for Gene Stallings at the University of Alabama. “And that’s one of the things when I came to Clemson that I was thankful for. And I learned really quick that, hey, this is a great rivalry, a historic rivalry and it means a lot to the people in this state.”
Clemson, which has won six straight over South Carolina, has rebounded from its 2-2 start, winning six of its last seven games to give itself a outside chance at sneaking into the ACC championship game if North Carolina State (against North Carolina) and Wake Forest (against Boston College) lose this week. Meanwhile, South Carolina, which was picked to finish next to last in the SEC’s Eastern Division in the preseason, is already bowl-eligible under first-year coach Shane Beamer.
“Unfortunately we didn’t get to play them last year, which I was looking forward to in high school, watching the rivalry and watching the beef continue,” sophomore offensive tackle Walker Parks said. “I think they’re a good team. I think a lot of people have counted us out. I think a lot of people have counted them out. So I think it’s a good game for both teams to prove ourselves. So I’m excited.”
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