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November 30, 2013

Rush's Roundtable

In this special feature, Gamecock Central's football insiders answer five questions about the Gamecocks.

1. What are some big reasons why South Carolina has turned the momentum in their favor over Clemson the last couple years?

JOSH LOW: I think it all starts up front on both sides of the ball. South Carolina has been better than Clemson on the offensive line and defensive line over the last few years. They have been the more physical team. I think that is the biggest reason why. South Carolina has pushed Clemson around up front. Another reason in my opinion is that South Carolina has recruited in-state better than Clemson during the win streak. This game means more to those players and it has been proven true with players like D.J. Swearinger, Alshon Jeffery, Stephon Gilmore, Marcus Lattimore, DeVonte Holloman, A.J. Cann, T.J. Johnson, Brandon Shell, Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles. The best players in the state have been going to South Carolina over the last four years and that is something South Carolina needs to keep doing.

RON AIKEN: The biggest reason is South Carolina has been the superior team. Contributing factors are the following: 1) the ACC has been a sham of a conference, the weakest in its already weak history, and thus has failed to prepare the Tigers for a superior USC team. 2) USC has added a game between Florida and Clemson games, a tune-up that has allowed USC to get healthy and grow confidence. The Gamecocks are 4-0 in the rivalry when there's a game played between the Gators and Tigers. 3) South Carolina has protected the football, run the clock and had an elite defense.

AVERY WILKS: South Carolina has simply been better over the past few years, trotting out lineups loaded with NFL talent. The Gamecocks have played outstanding defense, taken care of the ball, and chewed up clock to keep Clemson's potent offense on the sideline. Steve Spurrier has also outcoached Dabo Swinney and his coordinators each of the past four seasons.

CHRIS CLARK: Since Tiger offensive coordinator Chad Morris hopped on board, Clemson's offense has been thought of as dynamic and so the past three games of the four-game winning streak gives the best recipe for success. It's well-known that Clemson wants to get into a rhythm, run a lot of plays, and hit some big plays as well. USC has countered that by forcing turnovers, running the ball effectively whether with the quarterback or backs, and playing keep-away from the Clemson offense. Clemson's big-play ability has been limited by USC playing physical ball in the secondary and pressuring Tajh Boyd. The formula seems simple, but executing it is another thing. USC will try it once again this season.

2. How is this Clemson team different than the teams the last four years? Are they different?

JOSH LOW: I do think this Clemson team is different. I would make an argument that this is the most complete team South Carolina has faced during the streak. They are better on the defensive line and at linebacker. The secondary is still vulnerable, but I really like Bashaud Breeland and his physical style of play. He didn't play last year in this game. I still have questions about Clemson's offensive line. Everyone knows they have playmakers at receiver and Tajh Boyd is a good quarterback. I do think the running game has taken a step back with the loss of Andre Ellington. Boyd is probably their best big running back threat.

RON AIKEN: Clemson is a tick better on defense, especially the defensive front, and is a tick worse on offense, losing playmakers Nuk Hopkins and Andre Ellington.

AVERY WILKS: There have been a personnel changes over the years, but this is largely the same Clemson team South Carolina has seen over the past few seasons. They run the same high-powered offense they've run since Chad Morris' arrival in 2011, and they'll have good quarterback play, a decent running game and explosive wide receivers. Nothing new there. The biggest difference is that the current team has much more experience and an improved defense.

CHRIS CLARK: The defense is definitely improved. Critics will point to the lack of competition for Clemson and the struggles against Florida State and Georgia. FSU has mauled everyone in its path this season especially on offense and UGA was healthier when the Dawgs played Clemson early in the season. Clemson also forced some key mistakes that helped win that game. The secondary play statistically is pretty good but still vulnerable in my book. The biggest difference is up front, where the defensive line is active and the linebackers are playing better too. Offensively, there are a lot of similarities to last season's team. There is no more Nuk Hopkins, who was not only a security blanket but a dynamic player but Martavis Bryant has emerged as a big deep threat there to complement Sammy Watkins who is having a strong season. Andre Ellington is no longer around either and while Clemson misses him, Rod McDowell has done a good job this season too.

3. South Carolina has been able to slow down Clemson's high-powered offense since Chad Morris arrived. How can they do it again? What are the concerns for South Carolina's defense this year against the Tigers?

JOSH LOW: I think the biggest key in the game for South Carolina is they have to get pressure on Tajh Boyd with only their front four. That is where South Carolina has been the most dominant in the past two years in this game. If they don't get pressure with the front four, then I think Boyd could have a really good day. South Carolina isn't as strong in their back seven as they have been. The eyes of the linebackers and safeties are going to have to be in the right place Saturday night. I think that is the biggest concern for the defense. Clemson has the potential to hit some really big plays Saturday night if South Carolina can't get pressure on Boyd. I will also say that South Carolina's offense has helped out the defense a lot in the previous games against Clemson. They have controlled the clock and dominated time of possession. That type of performance again would be very helpful.

RON AIKEN: The playbook is mostly the same for Lorenzo Ward, but getting the same results will take some craftiness, because the pass-rushing skill of USC is not what it has been. Jadeveon Clowney has been a shell of himself this season for whatever reason you choose to believe, and Chaz Sutton has been unable to generate much pressure. Last season, Clowney had 4.5 sacks against the Tigers. This year, Clowney and Sutton combined don't have 4.5 sacks. That has to change if the Gamecocks are going to enjoy the same success getting to the quarterback and affecting the Clemson offense like they have successfully in the past.

AVERY WILKS: The concerns are the same as usual. Clemson again has a good dual-threat quarterback in Tajh Boyd and two explosive wide receivers in Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant. South Carolina realistically can't blanket those players on every single play, so it will come down -- as always -- to the battle in the trenches. The Gamecocks will need to stop Clemson's offense at its source, Tajh Boyd. Pressuring him will be paramount.

CHRIS CLARK: It all goes back to the points mentioned earlier: controlling the clock and the ball when USC has it on offense and not turning the ball over. Defensively, not having mental breakdowns will be key but pressuring with the front four will be the key to the game. Clemson still wants to run the ball effectively and if USC can win up front and stop the run and also pressure Boyd, it could make for a frustrating night for the Tigers. Given that Clemson is a rhythm offense, that's exactly what the Gamecocks want. The concerning aspect for USC is that the secondary (particularly safety) hasn't been consistent this season and there is a lot of youth at linebacker. Chad Morris pointed it out this week and you have to think he's going to try to get his players in a position to try to take advantage of some of those matchups. Statistically, USC also hasn't pressured up front as much this season. If USC can't pressure, Boyd can hit open receivers or run with it.

4. How does South Carolina's offense match up with the Clemson defense this year? What are some big keys for the Gamecocks on that side of the ball?

JOSH LOW: The biggest key for the offense in every game is not to turn the ball over and that will be no different here. They have won the turnover battle against Clemson during the streak and will need that to continue. The offensive line has to play well. This is a very good Clemson defensive line and they are going to need to control the line of scrimmage like they have in the past against this team. The running game and getting Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds going will be big to control the clock. Connor Shaw needs to have a good game passing and running the ball. I think there will be opportunities for him to really make Clemson pay on the ground. I also think the screen game is going to be there. I think Davis could have a big day catching the ball and also the quick receiver screens could really open some things up.

RON AIKEN: On paper, it looks more favorable than it has in years in terms of health and experience. Just having the starting running back and quarterback healthy is a change from the past two years, and the offensive line has everybody ready to go. Getting Mike Davis going will be a big key to controlling the clock, as will Connor Shaw's rushing for first downs on occasion to keep the chains moving and Clemson's defense guessing.

AVERY WILKS: Clemson's defense is much better this season than it has been in the past, spearheaded by a pass rush that averages 2.82 sacks (South Carolina averages 1.73) and 9.64 tackles for loss per game, the best mark in the country. For the Gamecocks to be effective, the offensive line will have to dominate in the trenches and Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds will have to establish the ground game early. South Carolina has won the past four games against Clemson by pounding the rock, chewing up clock and playing good defense, and they'll need to stick to that strategy to win Saturday. Of course, a screen pass or two to Davis or Wilds couldn't hurt if Clemson's pass rush does get in a rhythm.

CHRIS CLARK: Key number one for USC's offense is to not turn it over. USC has won the turnover battle every year the team has beaten Clemson during the streak, and with a Clemson offense that can make a team pay in that regard, the Gamecocks have to play smart. Running the ball and controlling the clock is another way. Clemson has some athletic, speedy guys across the board on defense so I think taking advantage of the screen game with Mike Davis could be important. USC's offensive line has played well on the whole this season and it will no doubt be one of the best groups Clemson has seen all season. I think the Gamecocks can win some battles there particularly in the run game. I also think that USC's receivers and tight ends can win some battles. Connor Shaw is a major factor in this game because of his ability to scramble as well as pass the ball.

5. Should Connor Shaw be considered the greatest quarterback ever to play at South Carolina or does he need to do a little more before getting that honor?

JOSH LOW: This is a hard question for me to answer because I wasn't around to see South Carolina play before the 1990s. I do think he is the best that I've ever watched at South Carolina. He is the definition of what a quarterback and a leader should be. The record and some of his stats speak for itself. I will also say that he is the toughest player that I've ever watched at South Carolina. There are still several things that he could accomplish this season to make his career look even better. My prediction is that Shaw will go down as the greatest quarterback to ever play at South Carolina. He is also the most underappreciated Gamecock ever.

RON AIKEN: Probably not. He has the winning record, and that's a record he'll always have and probably never will lose. His greatest strengths...not turning the ball over, consistent leadership, rushing ability...are too often overlooked as attributes, but the reason they are often overlooked is because quarterbacks are judged by their passing ability, and Shaw, a steady passer, just isn't in the same passing league as a Steve Taneyhill or Todd Ellis (or maybe even Bobby Fuller). He's been exactly what a team with a strong running game and elite defense needs, but that doesn't make him the kind of electrifying player people think about when they consider the greatest players at a position.

AVERY WILKS: Connor Shaw is already the greatest quarterback ever to play at South Carolina, and anything he does from here in is just icing on the cake. He's the winningest quarterback in program history, he's an undefeated 16-0 at home, he's got the highest completion percentage (65.1) of any South Carolina quarterback, and he's played a major role in the greatest four years in program history. He's been a great, selfless leader who fights through injury to play with his teammates, and South Carolina fans can't ask for much more.

CHRIS CLARK: He is in my book. He's undefeated at home, is gutty, has a stellar record as a starter. Critics could point out a few things, namely that he hasn't won the East at USC and that his road record is not as good. With the exception of the Tennessee game (not a good one for him) this season, all of his losses have come to very good teams on the road. To me, his record speaks for itself and it will always remain a mystery to me why a portion of the fan base has been unable to get behind someone that has done so much for his team.

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