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March 9, 2011

BLOG: USC's Rise Is Clemson's Despair

The defining moment of the just-completed high stakes baseball series between South Carolina and Clemson didn't happen on the diamond.

Instead, it occurred about 10 minutes following Friday night's 6-3 victory by South Carolina over the Tigers at Carolina Stadium.

As Jack Leggett prepared to talk with the large group of media assembled outside the Clemson dugout, a disgruntled Tigers fans leaned over the railing and screamed at Leggett, 'We're tired of being number two in this state!' or exact words to that effect.

In a way, that CU fan's brief post-game tirade symbolizes where the USC-Clemson rivalry stands right now. Not just in baseball, mind you, but in football as well.

The fortunes of the two schools involved in the Palmetto State's biggest rivalry have flipped in the last few years. Once dominated by Clemson, USC has finally started to assert itself against its main rival.

So far in the 2010-2011 academic year, USC is leading Clemson, 9-3, in all sports. But in the three major men's sports - the programs that most resonate with the two schools' loyal and passionate fan bases - USC leads 4-1.

The football team has won two in a row over Clemson for the first time in 40 years, outscoring the Tigers, 63-24, in the two wins. Even though the USC men's basketball team has struggled this season, the Gamecocks managed to beat Clemson, 64-60, in early December.

Between 1988 and 2005, Clemson dominated the football series by winning 14 of 18 matchups. But starting in 2006, USC has won three of the last five games, including twice at Memorial Stadium.

But the reversal of fortune has been spearheaded by the baseball program. USC has won 14 of the last 20 meetings with the Tigers on the diamond, including the two victories in Omaha last June that catapulted the Gamecocks into the national championship series.

Does the Gamecocks' 2010 national championship stick in the craw of Clemson fans? Absolutely. Especially since USC ran over the Tigers' national title hopes on the road to winning it all.

Do Clemson fans expect to beat USC in each of the three major men's sports? Yes. But it's happening less and less frequently these days and Clemson administrators, coaches and, most prominently, Tiger fans (if sports talk shows in Columbia are an accurate barometer) are having a extremely difficult time dealing with that reality.

A few years ago, I recall a Clemson football assistant described the USC game as their 'Super Bowl.' No doubt Tiger fans take the rivalry with the Gamecocks very personally and very seriously in nearly every sport and they can't stand losing to USC in anything, especially football, basketball and baseball.

Also, the fact Clemson doesn't seem to have a true rival in the ACC means they give the Gamecocks their undivided attention 365 days a year.

For a long time, especially in the 1990's, Tiger fans had a reason to smile whenever they faced USC because they knew they had the better team. But the landscape has been altered. The assumption (accepted by some fans as gospel) that Clemson is superior to USC in the three major men's sports is quickly dissipating.

Frankly, it's about time.

Clemson's frustrations clearly boiled over during the baseball series. When Leggett raced onto the field to ask the umpires to check Jackie Bradley Jr.'s bats, it was, in my opinion, an act of desperation. He was looking to fire up his team following three straight losses to USC dating back to last June.

You could certainly argue that his strategy worked for one game since Clemson rallied to win that game. But he might have lost the war in the process because his antics fired up the USC team and helped spur the Gamecocks to victory.

What has USC done to turn the tables? It all begins with a mindset and AD Eric Hyman (and Steve Spurrier, too) has brought a much-needed winning/can-do attitude to the Gamecocks' athletics department since taking over in July of 2005.

As I've written and stated on many occasions, mediocrity was tolerated at USC for far too long. It was a poison that flowed unabated through the fabric of the athletics department and fan base.

But the hiring of Spurrier in November of 2004 followed by the hiring of Hyman seven months later helped alter that course, and were the first steps toward propelling the USC athletics program forward.

Sure, some programs like men's basketball remain a work in progress, but Hyman remains optimistic about the team's future with Darrin Horn at the helm. Obviously, next season is critical and progress must be shown.

Better coaching and greatly upgraded facilities have produced superior results in recruiting. Six years ago, would any USC dare dream that the Gamecocks would be able to sign elite prospects like Marcus Lattimore, Alshon Jeffery, Stephon Gilmore and Jadeveon Clowney? No. But now they have.

And there's another important factor as well: the SEC. I've said before and I'll say it again - leaving the ACC was the worse decision USC ever made, but joining the SEC was the best decision the school ever made.

Why? Trying to compete with schools like Florida, Georgia, Florida and Alabama forced USC to raise their standards on multiple levels. Guess what? As USC has closed the gap on those schools, it's also narrowed significantly the separation with - or even surpassed - Clemson.

The SEC is recognized as the best conference in the country in a number of sports, particularly football and baseball. Top prospects want to play weekly on national TV in front of passionate fans in sold-out 80,000-plus seat stadiums. They get the best of all worlds in the SEC.

Today, USC is able to recruit on the same level as Clemson because their facilities are just as good or better in some situations. You couldn't say that a few years ago.

Frankly, the fact Jack Leggett seemed to apologize for his conduct during a Wednesday teleconference surprised me. Leggett has rarely, if ever, given USC credit when the Gamecocks win, so I expected him to maintain the party line that he had done nothing wrong.

During his post-game press conference Tuesday night, Leggett claimed the bat controversy was simply a small part of two rivals trying to win a game.

But I believe he realized - rightfully so - that his questionable behavior on Sunday had put his long-time friendship with Tanner in jeopardy. So, he made the wise decision to swallow his pride a little bit. Good for him.

Now that the hard-fought three-game series is over, it's time for both schools to move on. Baseball offers little time for reflection. As soon as one game or series is over, you prepare for the next one. Over time, the games zip by so fast they're almost a blur.

USC has a very good Cal State-Bakersfield team coming to Columbia this weekend. If the Gamecocks aren't careful, the Roadrunners could fly back to the West Coast with one win, or even a series win, in their back pocket.

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