Brett Flashnick, Associated Press
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Clemson and South Carolina are each ready to make history — and they can't think of a better place to do it than their season-ending rivalry game.
For all the injuries, surprises, milestones and disappointments, the No. 18 Tigers (9-2) and No. 14 Gamecocks (9-2) have the chance for 10 victories — something both programs have sought for decades.
"It's the state championship," Gamecocks defensive end Melvin Ingram said. "Both teams will come out and give it their all."
Just the way they have throughout a pair of surprising seasons.
The Gamecocks were picked by many to return to the Southeastern Conference title game, but they were edged out by Georgia despite beating their five Eastern Division rivals and winning six league games for the first time.
If South Carolina wins Saturday night at Williams-Brice Stadium, it would mark three straight rivalry wins — something that last happened from 1968-70 — and its first 10-win season since the celebrated "Black Magic" team that went 10-2 in 1984.
The Gamecocks have accomplished it in a totally unexpected way, too.
South Carolina figured to be led by its three offensive playmakers in quarterback Stephen Garcia, tailback Marcus Lattimore and receiver Alshon Jeffery. Garcia, however, was kicked off the team for good in October after five previous suspensions, and Lattimore went down with a season-ending knee injury that same week.
Garcia's departure has put untested sophomore Connor Shaw at quarterback, while freshman Brandon Wilds — a fifth-stringer when the season began — has picked up the slack in the backfield to help the Gamecocks continue winning. Shaw's won five of his six starts and Wilds has rushed for over 100 yards in three of four games since gaining the job.
It's also helped that South Carolina has one of the strongest defenses in the SEC. The Gamecocks are fourth in overall defense and trail only Alabama against the pass.
Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier, not always one to give in, recognized that without Garcia and Lattimore he couldn't count on going downfield the way he loves and retrenched to a ball-control attack.
"We realize that's just not what we can do right now," Spurrier said. "We have been able to run it pretty well, as you know. We've run the ball effectively — not super."
Spurrier still flings his notes when balls sail away from open receivers. Now, though, he dials up three straight runs and usually keeps the ball moving forward.
"As we all know, there's all kind of different ways to win in football, basketball, every sport, really," Spurrier said. "Running the ball, playing very good defense, scoring touchdowns in the red zone is a very good way to win."
Clemson took a different approach and for two months was the talk of college football and a BCS title contender.
First-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris brought in a fast-paced attack built on speed at the skill positions and efficient play at quarterback. That's what the Tigers got in tailback Andre Ellington, receiver Sammy Watkins and quarterback Tajh Boyd to go 8-0, the team's best start in 11 seasons. The Tigers' youth has shown the past few weeks, with Clemson losing two of three, including a stunning 37-13 loss at North Carolina State.
The sluggish stretch hasn't completely cost Clemson, which is heading to the Atlantic Coast Conference title game in Charlotte, N.C., next week no matter the outcome against the Gamecocks.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney knows his players already had their "not-much-to-play-for" moment in Raleigh last week and thinks they'll rebound against their biggest rival. The Tigers have reached two of the five team goals posted in the meeting room wall in winning the opener and the ACC Atlantic Division. Goal No. 3 is winning the state championship.
"That's what we have to focus on. Let's be who we are. We've got volumes of tape of us doing the right things. That's what we have to get back to doing," Swinney said.
The Tigers' recent problems on offense — they've averaged only 20 points the last three games after scoring over 40 a contest in the 8-0 start — come from turnovers, according to Morris. Boyd threw 24 touchdowns and three interceptions in Clemson's perfect start, but just three TDs and six picks in the three games since.
By not taking care of the football, "we've lost some confidence the last few games," he said.
The Tigers will get a big shot of confidence with the return of Watkins, the freshman who leads the ACC with 10 touchdown catches. He sat out the loss to N.C. State because of a shoulder injury but has worked out all week.
Less certain is South Carolina's star freshman, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who suffered a mild concussion in last week's victory over The Citadel. Spurrier and defensive leader Ellis Johnson are hopeful Clowney will be ready.
Expect a strong effort from anyone in this game. The two teams haven't both been ranked when they've played since 2000 and the 18 combined wins are the most ever in rivalry history.
"I think it's neat for our state that we had two teams in the top 25 all year and occasionally in the top 15," Spurrier said.
AP writer Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report.
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