There was one thing Will Muschamp heard more than any other when he was hired as South Carolina’s head coach. One thing Carolina fans wanted more than anything.
“From day one, beat Clemson. I heard it from everybody,” Muschamp said.
For Gamecock fans, there could be nothing bigger right now than a victory over the rival Tigers. Especially with No. 3 Clemson, the defending national champions, in the midst of its greatest era ever and South Carolina at the end of a disappointing 4-7 season in Muschamp’s fourth season.
“I feel like for some people that would make the whole year,” senior linebacker and Columbia native T.J. Brunson said.
“It’s a rivalry game with two teams that don’t like each other,” senior Donell Stanley said. “If you are in garnet and black, you don’t like people in purple or orange. … It’s an in-state game so fans are heated up, and so are we.”
Perhaps no one wants to beat Clemson more than Stanley, a sixth-year senior who has watched the Tigers win five in a row in the rivalry series. He could become the first South Carolina player since at least since the 1930s, and possibly ever, to lose to Clemson six years in a row.
“I don’t want to be on that end of the record,” Stanley said. “… I haven’t beaten those guys yet and I don’t want to lose to them six years in a row, so we have to do something about it.”
What would a win mean to the Floydale, S.C. native?
“This would wrap up my career here. I could tell people I beat Clemson in my last game as a Gamecock. That would be big,” he said.
It would also be big for Muschamp, who has lost to Clemson in each of his three seasons by an average of 30.6 points, including a humiliating 56-7 defeat in 2016 and a 56-35 loss at Clemson last season.
Even worse, Muschamp has tried to rebuild the South Carolina program during an era when Clemson has gone 41-3 and won two national championships in the last three years. The Tigers are 11-0 this season and destined to be in the College Football Playoffs for a fifth straight year.
But as much as South Carolina fans are starving for a win over the Tigers, Muschamp insists he can’t worry about the recent success of his rival.
“I have worried and spent a lot of time on South Carolina. … I always talk to our players about controlling things that you can control and as far as recruiting, as far as developing players on campus, coaching, those are things I can control here,” he said. “I can’t control the other. Obviously we need to do a better job as coaches and players in this game than we have in the previous three and find a way to win the game.”
Part of the challenge is blocking out the noise from South Carolina fans desperate for a win over Clemson. The Gamecocks won five straight games over the Tigers from 2009-13 under Steve Spurrier.
Muschamp knows, however, that the noise won’t quieten until South Carolina stops Clemson’s winning streak, and probably not even then.
“That’s part of what a rivalry game is,” he said. “It’s generally geographically close to you that you have to deal with it 365 days out of the year and something you obviously hear. It’s not something you like and want to become accustomed to. You have to continue to coach through it and play through it and recruit through it and develop through it and continue to work through it. You can’t get frustrated.
“You just have to continue to work through the situation to create the best situation you can for your football team, and that’s what we have been trying to do.”
Though Clemson is a heavy favorite, Stanley draws inspiration from the 2015 game when he was a redshirt freshman. Under interim head coach Shawn Elliott, South Carolina had lost to The Citadel the week before in a 3-9 season. But the Gamecocks played No. 2 Clemson close, falling 37-32.
The 4-7 Gamecocks, who have lost three straight games, will approach this week’s matchup the same way.
“It’s a challenge, it’s an opportunity,” he said. “You know what those guys have done and you know where they are at this year and where we are at. A lot of people are not giving us a chance, but we just have to trust our process and trust our training and go out there and play to the best of our ability.”
Brunson, a three-year starter, knows what to expect this week and in the game Saturday. He says the Gamecocks will be ready.
“It’s always intense every time these two teams hook up. It’s a dogfight,” he said. “Fans, players, coaches, everyone is feeling it. There’s something big leading up to it, really the whole season you hear about it.
“I just looking forward to wrapping up the season strong, regardless of the record or anything. This is an important week for all of us.”
If the Gamecocks can upset the No. 3 Tigers, it would ruin Clemson’s national championship hopes and salvage what has been a disappointing season for South Carolina. That’s the goal, linebacker Ernest Jones said.
“Ruining it [for them] would be great. I’m definitely trying to knock them out of that spot,” he said. “That’s the goal, that’s what we are coming in to do.”
After a bye week to prepare, Muschamp believes his team is ready for the rivalry game.
“It’s important to our state and to the university of South Carolina,” he said. “We had a good practice this morning, the guys bouncing around. They feel that vibe and we are looking forward to it.”