There’s not a Gamecock alive who is not familiar with South Carolina’s recent five game winning streak. There’s not a Tiger alive who will not readily point out that Clemson has won the last two, leads the all time series, and is probably going to make it a three game winning streak next year. Next season doesn’t look good for the Gamecocks. The question is how long will it take, if ever, for South Carolina to catch Clemson.
For most observers the 2014 Texas A&M – South Carolina game was a turning point for the program. That was the game when it became apparent that there was something very wrong in Columbia. Over the next two seasons it was clear what the problem was: lack of talent. The success of the late Spurrier era did not translate into sustained success in large part because the difference making playmakers were gone and not replaced.
In the same week that South Carolina was embarrassed by the Aggies, Clemson lost to Georgia in Athens. The Tigers lost to a better team, which happens, but unlike the Gamecocks, the Tigers weren’t facing a talent deficit each week. The loss to the Bulldogs was just one game; it wasn’t indicative of a trend.
The remainder of the 2014 season would bear out the two trends. South Carolina was in a state of talent decline, and Clemson continued to build on their success. When the two teams met at the end of the season, the result was predictable. Clemson made some mistakes, didn’t play their best game and won easily 35-17.
If 2014 was the warning, 2015 was the confirmation. South Carolina hadn’t fixed its problems, and Clemson was getting stronger. The Gamecocks stumbled to their worst season in a decade and had their head coach resign half way through. Clemson ran the table undefeated and won a surprisingly close game in Columbia at the end of the season. No one who watched the two teams play would think the Gamecocks had narrowed the talent gap.
In the midst of South Carolina’s recent five game winning streak, it looked like the streak might go on indefinitely. The Gamecocks were winning 11 games year in and year out. Some very good Clemson teams entered the game with good records and lost by double digits. Tiger teams with 9-2, 10-1 and 10-1 records lost by 21, 10 and 14. For many, it looked like South Carolina’s spot ahead of Clemson was going to be the status quo for years to come.
The shocking thing is not that Clemson caught South Carolina. It’s not inconceivable that they passed the Gamecocks. The surprise is how quickly they caught, passed and moved away from USC. Seemingly overnight, Clemson took anther step forward, and South Carolina took two giant steps back. That is the state of the rivalry at the end of the Spurrier Era.
Today, things look even better for the Tigers. They are undefeated, the consensus number one team in the country. They have beaten South Carolina twice in a row and have unquestionably more talent on their roster. They are a young team who should return much of their talent next season. Anything the Gamecocks are doing, the Tigers are doing better. Will things ever change for South Carolina?
The single biggest difference in Clemson and South Carolina is talent. South Carolina has made moves to fix that issue. They’ve hired a coach known for recruiting in Will Muschamp, who is assembling a staff of known recruiters as well, and his hiring has stirred optimism in Columbia again.
However, Gamecocks should pump the breaks on expectations of catching Clemson soon. The talent gap is wide and will take time to overcome. Head coach Dabo Swinney remains a dynamic recruiter and will certainly continue to bring top shelf talent to the upstate. Muschamp has a long way to go to close the gap, and it will likely take years.
Look at what happened over the last few days. Muschamp hit the ground running. He literally flew all over the east coast courting talent and signing some. The players he signed were important pieces of the South Carolina recruiting strategy. They are talented and will be an upgrade in Columbia. Then, at about the same time, Dabo Swinney received commitments from a pair of five star players. Was there ever a better illustration of the chasm between the programs? South Carolina upgrades its roster to close the gap with Clemson, and the Tigers upgrade theirs at the same time.
It’s going to take a long time for South Carolina to close the gap with Clemson. It will happen because nothing is ever permanent in college athletics. It won’t happen this recruiting cycle or next year. It may be a few years. If Will Muschamp can close the gap before Clemson turns its winning streak into five games, he will have been a home run hire.