The season’s second weekend of college football began with the standard bedlam at South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium.
No. 4 Clemson opened its home schedule with a clash against unranked South Carolina, and the crowd exploded each time Gamecocks quarterback Jake Bentley threw deep downfield.
Then the Tigers pounced.
Clemson cornerback Jay Williams intercepted a Bentley pass and returned it 36 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter.
Then linebacker Dorian O’Daniel sacked Bentley in the end zone for a safety in the third quarter.
And the scoreboard operator still had work to do.
Clemson’s 28-10 halftime lead had all but evaporated, transforming a raucous, loud night at Clemson’s football palace into a stunning, ugly mismatch between the nation’s two highest-ranked teams.
It was a stunning setback for the Gamecocks. And a surprising show of strength for Clemson, which is in the midst of the longest winning streak in the country at 19 games.
But all was not lost. Despite their losses over the weekend, South Carolina and Clemson continued to chase the first College Football Playoff.
Clemson, which improved to 8-0, is riding a national scoring advantage over its opponents. The Tigers’ offense is piling up 526.3 yards of total offense per game. But their best method of scoring touchdowns — converting short field goals and hitting big plays with their offense — came to an end on Saturday night. South Carolina thwarted them on a 14-play, 80-yard drive. The crowd also hollered against the Tigers on three separate occasions on Saturday.
“I understand the same sense of frustration that we have,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said after the game. “I know it’s tough on them. I know the same way they would feel.”
South Carolina, on the other hand, needed a short field to reach the end zone against the Crimson Tide. The Gamecocks put it in the end zone twice in a four-play span to draw within 14-10, but then Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw a bomb to sophomore DeVonta Smith for a 75-yard touchdown to seal the victory.
“It’s on us to come out here and execute,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. “They haven’t played us like that before.”
There’s ample evidence to suggest that’s true, though. South Carolina has given up at least 40 points in every game this season. The Gamecocks have also been outscored in all but two quarters this season, winning only two by fewer than seven points.
And, again, both Clemson and South Carolina have been sharp defensively for months.
“We’re the No. 1 offense in the country,” Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence said this week, “and they just scored 15.”
Both teams have ample reasons to keep searching for victory. Clemson still leads the country in scoring, but that seemingly gaudy output has been deceptive. The Tigers are averaging 9.8 points a game, which ranks just 11th nationally.
They also know that Tennessee isn’t going away. But the Gamecocks haven’t clinched anything, yet, despite a win that looked like it had been pulled out of the bag.
With just three games remaining before the traditional College Football Playoff selection committee rounds into form, it appears the College Football Playoff game will remain up for grabs between Clemson and South Carolina, regardless of which team wins at Clemson in the next month.
But for fans of both programs, as well as the teams involved, the future seems bright.
The Gamecocks have found their stride. They will be just 0.1 percent down from last season in the College Football Playoff rankings, should they finish 8-3.
There’s an unquenchable sense of hope in Columbia, S.C. For Clemson, perhaps especially.