Ross McDaniel couldn’t see the crowd, but he felt the energy from it.
The second-year engineering major, who spent the last month helping construct a 27-foot tall flammable tiger for this exact moment, stood behind the looming structure as he and a small group of South Carolina engineering students prepared to light it on fire.
As the torches bent down and finally kick started the annual Tiger Burn, it was McDaniel's group and the towering Tiger giving fans a brief injection of optimism in the midst of a rough football season.
“I heard the crowd,” McDaniel said, pausing. “And it sounded like they enjoyed it.”
Half a football field away, Dwayne Schumpert stood and admired the blaze, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet while soaking in the sights and sounds with the fight song playing in the background.
This isn’t his first rodeo.
For Schumpert, a self-proclaimed Gamecock fan for over 40 years, he’s done this a time or two.
The outfit doesn’t change: a garnet jacket with a metal football pinned on the arm, accented by a necklace with a stuffed Cocky dangling from it and a football hat with another Cocky stitched to it.
He said it’s commonplace for him to wear “strange things” to support the team he’s rooted for going on four decades, with only one thing changing week to week.
The décor around Cocky atop his hat is rotated weekly, with Schumpert saying it’s not unusual to see a rubber alligator dangling from it among other things.
On Monday night, it was Cocky holding a box of matches and a stuffed Tiger faux on fire next to him.
Schumpert arrived to the event over an hour beforehand and wouldn’t have missed this event for the world despite the Gamecock team sitting at 4-7.
“Oh, no, it’s just the same,” he said, shaking his head. “They had a tough schedule this year. We knew it was going to be a rough season.”
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And there were plenty of other people who think just like Schumpert.
The field adjacent to Colonial Life Arena was packed with alumni, students and whomever else wanted stroll in and get fired up for the annual Palmetto Bowl, which takes place this Saturday at noon inside Williams-Brice.
For Clemson, it’s a chance to extend its winning streak to 27 games. For the Gamecocks, they get the opportunity to play spoiler to another team and pull the rug out on the Tigers’ College Football Playoffs hopes.
They’ve done it before, traveling down to Georgia in early October and leaving with a 20-17 overtime victory.
“I was there watching what took place in Georgia when the University of Georgia was number three in the nation and we were down by about 24 points going into the game,” university president Bob Caslen told the crowd. “Guess what? Clemson is number three in the nation and we’re down about 24 points going into this game. This football team has done it to a number three team, an undefeated team, before. There’s no reason why they can’t do it again.”
Will Muschamp’s said it ad nauseam over the course of what he’s called a rough year --the Gamecocks aren’t where they expected to be -- and fans tend to agree.
But Monday offered a fresh burst of optimism with less than a week until the big day.
“I think the football team’s had its ups and downs. We had a big win over Georgia and I was at that game,” McDaniel said. “I wouldn’t say we’re a bad football team. I think we’ve had a tough schedule and a difficult road to overcome. I think we have the potential to play well and definitely beat a team like Clemson. We proved that when we beat Georgia.”
Fans fall back on that Oct. 12 game between the hedges with eerily similar circumstances, with both opponents undefeated at the time of the game, both third-ranked and both boasting win streaks heading into the game.
They also take some solace in last year’s offensive explosion where the Gamecocks scored 35 points and put up 600 yards of offense in Death Valley.
“You have to think about last year,” McDaniel said. “Our game against Clemson was the best of the season. There’s always a chance to beat them, especially being their rival and this being our chance to knock them out of the playoff. I’m very optimistic.”
Pundits and advanced analytics haven’t been kind to South Carolina in terms of the Gamecocks pulling the upset, but fans don’t care.
ESPN’s FPI gives the Gamecocks a less than 8 percent chance to win and the spread --Clemson’s a 24.5-point favorite -- but for a night, that doesn’t matter.
“I mean a little bit. They beat Georgia. Anything’s possible,” Schumpert said. “It’s going to be a tough road, but you can’t ever rule it out.”