Clemson is going for yet another victory against its in-state rival Saturday, but it’s not the only result the Tigers will be interested in this week.
In recent years, Clemson has gone into its final game of the regular season against South Carolina already knowing whether or not it would be playing the following weekend as well. That’s not the case this season.
The Tigers kept alive their slim chances of representing the Atlantic Division in the ACC championship game for the seventh straight year with its rout of then-No. 10 Wake Forest last week. The win kept Clemson (8-3, 6-2 ACC) tied with North Carolina State (8-3, 5-2) in the loss column and moved the Tigers just one game back in the loss column of the Demon Deacons (9-2, 6-1) atop the division standings.
Wake Forest and N.C. State each have one conference game left, and Clemson needs each to lose in order to sneak into the conference title game. Wake Forest plays Boston College at noon Saturday, so Clemson will have its answer before the Tigers kick it off against South Carolina at 7:30 that night inside Williams-Brice Stadium.
“We’ll be checking those scores for sure,” freshman receiver Beaux Collins said.
First up, though, is N.C. State, which could kill all of Clemson’s remaining hope if it beats North Carolina on Friday. The Wolfpack, who beat Clemson back in September, would win a three-way tiebreaker with Clemson and Wake Forest. But if they lose to the Tar Heels, which would give them three conference losses and remove them from the equation, then it comes down to the outcome of Wake Forest’s game at Boston College.
If the Demon Deacons win, they’ll head to Charlotte to play Pittsburgh as the Atlantic Division representative. But lose that one, and Wake Forest would finish with the same league record as Clemson, which would earn the tiebreaker via its head-to-head win last week.
Clemson has rallied from its 2-2 start by winning six of its last seven games to even put itself in this position. The only setback during that stretch was at Pitt when the Tigers mustered just 17 points in a 10-point loss back on Oct. 23, but the Tigers have averaged 38 points in their four games since.
“We had a tough September and had a tough loss to Pitt,” freshman running back Will Shipley said. “But we’ve been great since then.”
It’s making for a different dynamic than usual for the Tigers this week as they prepare for their in-state rival. As for how Clemson’s coaches are handling it with their players, head coach Dabo Swinney said the message is to not waste time worrying about things they no longer control.
“We just need focus on where we are and what we’re trying to do, and that’s trying to win the state championship,” Swinney said. “If it’s meant to be, it’ll work out. If it’s not, hey, we gave ourself a chance and we’ll get ready for a great bowl game. But that’s out of our control.”
There’s plenty to keep the Tigers focused on the task at hand. Not only is winning that state championship one of their annual goals, but Clemson is trying to pull it off for a seventh consecutive time.
That would tie the Tigers’ longest-ever winning streak in the series. Clemson will have to try to do it on the road against a South Carolina team that’s surpassed expectations this season. Picked to finish next to last in the SEC’s Eastern Division in the preseason, the Gamecocks are already bowl-eligible, winning two of their last three games over Florida and, most recently, Auburn.
Swinney said during his radio show earlier in the week that he still hasn’t forgotten what it felt like to lose to South Carolina the last time it happened in 2013. He and his players would like to put that feeling off again in a game that “impacts everyone” in the state, Swinney said.
“They’re going to talk about it at church,” Swinney said. “They’re going to talk about it at dinner. They’re going to talk about it at their Thanksgiving get-togethers because it’s just a part of the DNA of South Carolina. And it’s really fun to be a part of those things. It’s better when you win. That’s for sure.”
Said Shipley, “I think our minds are solely focused on beating South Carolina because we know we’ve handled what we can handle up to this point.”
It’s the only thing the Tigers can control this weekend. The rest of it is up to fate.
“What matters is going to Williams-Brice and winning that game,” offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “We understand the magnitude of that game. And then whatever happens happens.”
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