CLEMSON — The No. 2 Clemson Tigers (10-1, 7-1 ACC) will try to do something they have not done since the 2000 season this weekend when they travel to Columbia to take on the South Carolina Gamecocks -- beat a South Carolina team that has at least eight wins.
For Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, there is an understanding that regardless of what the future has in store for both of these programs, whether it is championships or bowl games, this week just means more.
“We've got the season and then we've got South Carolina; for us it's our next goal,” Swinney said. “We know it's important to a lot of people in this state on both sides. It's our total focus this week. We're excited to head down there to take on a really good South Carolina team. They've gotten better. They've had a chance to win each week. They've been in it. Give them credit.
"We're looking forward to it, though. Everyone gets excited about this one. A lot of rivalry games across the country this week. It's that time. It's fun to be a part of it. I've been a part of it my whole life. It's great. We're just focused on trying to finish as strong as we can. We want to play our best four quarters of this week."
Under second-year head coach Will Muschamp, the Gamecocks have won five more games than they did in 2016 and have improved in nearly every major statistical category — both offensively and defensively.
But for Swinney, one does not need to look any further than the Gamecocks’ record to respect the job that Muschamp has done at South Carolina.
"He has done a great job. You don't need me to break it down for you,” Swinney. “They weren't very good when he got there. He took them to a bowl last year and this year they're 8-3. He has done a phenomenal job. They're very well coached on both sides of the ball. He'd be the first to tell you they've got bigger goals. They are where they are in year two. He has made good progress."
Much of the progress that the Gamecocks have made in year two of Muschamp’s tenure can be attributed to sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley, who has started every game since he was inserted into the lineup midway through the 2016 season.
Bentley became the 14th player in Gamecock history to pass for 3,000 yards in his career (18 games) and leads the team with six rushing touchdowns.
“Their quarterback is a good player and good competitor. He has a great understanding of what they're trying to do,” Swinney said. “He's got some craftiness to him. Time and time again on tape you think he is sacked and somehow he breaks free. When he scrambles, he finds guys. He has a nice arm. He made a big touchdown against Wofford last week. He had a play against A&M that epitomizes who he is. He's a big, strong kid. He's a quarterback and a great competitor.”
While the Tigers and the Gamecocks are both programs on the rise, with the Tigers attempting to make the College Football Playoff for a third straight season and the Gamecocks heading to back-to-back bowl games, Swinney believes this rivalry is one that has not garnered the respect that it deserves.
"Definitely. I think that's changed over the last eight or nine years from when I first came here. Coach Spurrier and the run he had - -they had some great teams, 11-win teams,” Swinney said. “This game one year both of us were in the top 10. That's been rare in this rivalry, though. It's been very meaningful to the people in this state but not as appreciated as much out of state. With Alabama or Auburn, they've had a lot of games where the division has been on the line and both teams have been ranked. It's a game here where everyone pays attention to it more now."
Swinney goes for win 100
Swinney enters this week ranked sixth among active coaches in terms of winning percentage. Swinney has a 99-29 overall record as a head coach, a .773 percentage.
With 11 wins this season, which can be accomplished with a victory Saturday, Swinney can become just the fourth coach to win 100 games in his first 10 years. He had 89 wins entering the season, only Bob Stoops, Chris Peterson and Urban Meyer have 100 wins in their first 10 years.
But Swinney is not concerned with personal accomplishments this week — it is all about beating South Carolina.
"It would be awesome. I remember my first win at Boston and that was unbelievable. I never imagined I'd be thinking about a 100th win,” Swinney said. “I was thinking about a second win. It's a credit to our staff and the great players who have come through here. We've had a lot of success but we haven't done as good a job with that goal as we would have liked. Give them some credit too.
“There have been times when they have been better and other times when I think we have been evenly matched. At the end of the day, I just want to win the game. It's about us having an opportunity to continue on. It's playoff football for us every single week. It's not about me."