Palmetto Bowl: USC-Clemson preview
What: No. 1 Clemson (11-0) at South Carolina (3-8)
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium (80,250), Columbia, SC
When: Saturday, noon ET
TV/Radio: ESPN (Dave LaMont, Ray Bentley, Jeannine Edwards); Gamecock Radio Network, 107.5 FM In Columbia (Todd Ellis, Tommy Suggs, Langston Moore); Sirius 157/XM 191.
For the first time in decades, the annual Palmetto Bowl between rivals South Carolina and Clemson has national championship implications. Unfortunately for Gamecock supporters, the Tigers are the team with everything to gain as they come to Columbia as the top-ranked team in the country. A victory by Clemson on Saturday followed by a win in next weekend's ACC title game against North Carolina puts the Tigers into the four-team playoff. Can the Gamecocks pull off the massive upset and ruin the dreams and ambitions of Clemson?
USC OFFENSE v. CLEMSON DEFENSE:
Pharoh Cooper must feel snake bitten. Twice in his career he has caught 11 passes in a game, and the Gamecock have lost both times - vs. Tennessee in 2014 and last week vs. The Citadel.
Saturday most likely marks Cooper's final appearance in a Gamecock uniform as the junior from Havelock, N.C. appears headed to the NFL. The deadline to announce his intentions is mid-January, so Cooper doesn't have to say anything following Saturday's game when he is asked the 'Are you leaving?' question in the post-game press conference.
Of course, we might get an answer of Cooper's intentions during the pre-game festivities when USC recognizes 16 seniors. According to interim head coach Shawn Elliott, several juniors asked to participate in Senior Day activities, though he declined to name them.
Cooper has 62 receptions in 11 games heading into Saturday's Palmetto Bowl, seven fewer than last season when he collected 69 catches for 1,136 yards in 13 games. Cooper is averaging 5.6 receptions per game, so if he reaches his average he would be right on the cusp of matching last season's total.
Cooper is averaging 14.4 yards per reception, almost two yards per catch less than last season when he averaged 16.5 yards per catch.
Senior tight end Jerell Adams, USC's second leading pass catcher with 28 receptions for 421 yards, is also playing his final game with the Gamecocks. A week ago, Adams caught six passes for 105 yards against The Citadel, both career highs.
When you consider USC's third-leading receiver is senior running back Brandon Wilds with 17 receptions, you realize the mammoth rebuilding job facing USC's new head coach at the wide receiver position.
Cooper, Adams and Wilds have combined for 107 of USC's 177 receptions in 2015 (60.5 percent). Nobody stepped up to consistently complement Cooper at wide receiver this season. Perhaps redshirt freshman Deebo Samuel could have been the guy, but a severe hamstring injury wrecked his season. The second most productive wide receiver is walk-on Matrick Belton with 11 catches for 121 yards.
Quarterback Perry Orth established career highs in completions (28), pass attempts (43) and passing yards (367) in last week's loss to The Citadel and has solidified the position in the second half of the season after USC had three different starters in the first five games of the season.
What is the likelihood Orth posts similar numbers against Clemson's stellar defense Saturday? After all, the Tigers possess one of the top defensive units in the country
Someone must block ACC Defensive Player of the Year candidate Shaq Lawson off the edge. Lawson is now second in the nation in tackles for loss per game. He has 19 in his 11 games this year, just a half tackle for loss behind Carl Nassib of Penn State. Last week, Lawson was named a finalist for the Lombardi Award and the Nagurski Award.
Entering Saturday's game, Clemson is fifth in the nation in total defense (278.5 yards per game) and 12th in scoring defense (17.6 points). Clemson ranks first the nation in pass completion percentage defense (47.4 percent; 144-of-304 passes with 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Perry Orth, RB Brandon Wilds, WR Pharoh Cooper, TE Jerell Adams, LT Brandon Shell, C Alan Knott.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DE Shaq Lawson, DE Kevin Dodd, MLB B.J. Goodson, OLB Ben Boulware, FS T.J. Green, SS Jayron Kearse.
KEY MATCHUP: USC OT Brandon Shell vs. CLE DE Shaq Lawson.
All garnet for Clemson! #BeatClemson pic.twitter.com/KJvatpS5Ts— Gamecock Football (@GamecockFB) November 25, 2015
CLEMSON OFFENSE vs. USC DEFENSE:
When you are 13th in the SEC in total defense (90th nationally), allowing 422.1 yards per game, and just gave up 350 rushing yards to a FCS school, how do you stop an offense that has gained at least 500 yards total yards in each of the last seven games?
Easy answer: You probably don't.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is a strong Heisman Trophy contender for a reason: the sophomore has thrown for 2,944 yards (267.6 ypg) and 26 touchdowns while completing 70.1 percent of his passes this season.
In the last four games, Watson is averaging 347.8 passing yards (1,391 yards + 11 touchdowns) with a 71.0 percent completion percentage. Over the same stretch, Watson is averaging 77.5 yards per game on the ground, giving him an average of 425.3 yards per game in total offense.
A year ago, USC saw what happened when they applied zero pressure on Watson as he completed 14-of-19 passes for 269 yards (19.2 yards per completion) despite playing on one leg due to partially torn knee ligaments.
The scariest thing about Watson? He's a true sophomore and not eligible for the NFL Draft, so he'll be back in 2016 along with leading receiver Artavis Scott, who burned the Gamecocks for two long TD plays last year. Scott has 74 receptions for 680 yards and four touchdowns, 34 receptions in the last four games (8.5 per game).
Leading rusher Wayne Gallman (1,043 yards on 196 rushers) needed just 10 games to eclipse the 1,000 yard mark as he sat out last week's easy 33-13 victory over Wake Forest with a foot injury. He is listed as probable for Saturday's game. A year ago, Gallman shredded USC with 191 yards on 27 carries.
Clemson has averaged 40.6 points, 555 yards of total offense and 6.8 yards per play in wins over the past seven games.
Saturday's game likely marks the final appearance for USC's beleaguered defensive staff. Steve Spurrier's decision to hire Jon Hoke did not work out as planned since the Gamecocks are ranked in the bottom one-fourth of the SEC in scoring defense (26.6), rushing defense (215.7) and total defense (422.1).
What has been USC's biggest problem this year? Certainly, a lack of overall speed is to blame. Too often this season, we've seen an opposing ball carrier outrun Gamecock defenders to the edge, turn the corner and rocket upfield. The Citadel's first TD in last week's game was a prime example. The Bulldogs executed the option perfectly and USC defenders lacked the foot speed to close down the perimeter. Result? 59-yard TD run.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Deshaun Watson, RB Wayne Gallman, WR Artavis Scott, WR Charone Peak, TE Jordan Leggett, LT Mitch Hyatt.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DE Marquavius Lewis, DT Taylor Stallworth, MLB T.J. Holloman, OLB Skai Moore, SPR T.J. Gurley, FS Isaiah Johnson.
KEY MATCHUP: CLE RB Wayne Gallman vs. USC OLB Skai Moore.
SYNOPSIS: Clemson has 11 wins and South Carolina has three entering Saturday's game, the largest disparity in total victories between the two programs entering the Palmetto Bowl in the history of the series. This is the second longest active streak of consecutive years played in a rivalry in the nation. The only rivalry longer is Minnesota vs. Wisconsin at 108 games. Due to the disparity in talent, USC's best hope for a massive upset is force some turnovers and win the turnover margin by at least plus-2, frustrate Watson into some bad throws and curtail the running game. If USC is still in the game in the second half (remember, USC has never led at halftime this season), their confidence level should grow and perhaps Clemson will succumb to the pressure. USC's best asset is they have nothing to lose and is able to carry a carefree attitude into the game. Maybe that will allow them to play better. If not, they are in trouble. Too much to ask? Yes.
PREDICTION: CLEMSON 37, USC 17