COLUMBIA — Football fans in the Palmetto State have never had it better than this — rivals Clemson and South Carolina in the top 10 nationally for the first time.
The schools have certainly had their landmark moments separately, including Clemson’s 1981 national championship and the Heisman Trophy won by South Carolina’s George Rogers in 1980. But the schools had never shared a spot among the country’s 10 highest-ranked teams before this week: the Gamecocks are seventh and the Tigers 10th.
“Yeah, it’s pretty neat,” said Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier, accustomed to facing state rivals like Florida State and Miami in top 10 matchups during his 12 seasons at Florida.
But the Sunshine State is home to 19 million people, more than four times as many as South Carolina. The Palmetto State has a little over 200 public high schools with athletic programs, half as many as Florida.
Yet, Spurrier’s Gamecocks and coach Dabo Swinney’s Tigers have built championship contenders the past few seasons.
South Carolina won the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division in 2010 and reached its first league championship game. The Gamecocks followed that by going 11-2 last season, recording the most wins in a year since starting football in 1892.
Clemson has won ACC Atlantic Division crowns in 2009 and 2011, winning its first league title in 20 years last December.
The teams are each 3-0 in the same season for just the sixth time ever.
“I don’t know all the reasons, but certainly those guys at Clemson have done an excellent job recruiting and putting their team together,” Spurrier said. “Good players, good coaches.”
Spurrier and Swinney have kept the state’s best players at home while winning their share of recruiting battles for top talent elsewhere.
Clemson signed the country’s top prospect in 2008 in defensive end Da’Quan Bowers from Bamberg. South Carolina landed coveted running back Marcus Lattimore of Duncan in 2009 and 2011’s top national recruit in defensive end Jadeveon Clowney of Rock Hill.
The Tigers signed five-star prospects in 2011, too, in receiver Sammy Watkins and linebacker Tony Steward, both from Florida. The Gamecocks pulled in two four-star players from New Jersey in that class in receiver Damiere Byrd and defensive back Brison Williams.
Clemson freshman offensive lineman Shaq Anthony, whose first start came two weeks ago against Ball State, said he could see in high school after committing both state programs were on the way up.
Anthony, from Williamston about 30 miles from Clemson’s campus, remembered two years ago at the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas where the best high school seniors from South Carolina take on their counterparts from North Carolina. Anthony said it was apparent to the players at the all-star game that Clemson and South Carolina would be strong in the coming years.
“It goes to show the talent level that South Carolina has that people overlook,” he said. “At the Shrine Bowl, we said, ‘We’re going to end up being really good teams and competing at the top level when we get into our sophomore and junior years.”’
Clemson and South Carolina appear right on schedule, although both have challenges ahead to keep the good times rolling. South Carolina returns to SEC play Saturday against Missouri (2-1, 0-1). The Tigers travel to No. 4 Florida State (3-0) in the ACC’s first top-10 matchup in five years.
College football is the main focus for most sports fans in South Carolina, the state largely split down the middle between Gamecock garnet and Tiger orange. Fans, players and coaches stir up the rivalry year-round — and have since the teams first met in 1896.
Spurrier, in the postgame comments following a 48-10 win over East Carolina on Sept. 8, crowed about his team getting off 50 plays in the first half, saying, “that Clemson coach would be proud of us, wouldn’t he?” referring to the high-speed attack of Tigers offensive coordinator Chad Morris.
Swinney, when asked about Spurrier’s comment, grinned in response, “That’s great. It means they’re doing a great job on offense with that many plays and defense for that matter.”
Swinney wasn’t so generous last December after he lost his third straight game to South Carolina with a rant that’s likely to live forever in state football lore, stating that prime university in the state has long been Clemson and not South Carolina. “Print that. Tweet that,” Swinney said, permanently riling South Carolina supporters.
Anthony, the Clemson offensive lineman, expects the state to keep developing top players who’ll showcase their talent for the Tigers and Gamecocks. “It’s interesting to reminisce on that since we’re working just as hard in South Carolina as those guys in Florida, one of those golden states,” he said.