2022 Fall Football Preview
South Carolina and Clemson on the Move
By WORTHY EVANS
Usually at this time of year, Clemson football fans are taking another dominant run in the Atlantic Coast Conference and awaiting the rankings for the College Football Playoff National Championship. The high expectations of the Tigers’ fan base is with good reason: in the eight years of the most recent national championship format, the four-team playoff leading up to the title game played in early January, Clemson has made the Final Four six times, reached the final game four times, and claimed the national title twice, in 2017 and 2019.
The year 2022 may well include some speed bumps in the Tigers’ road to the postseason, for several reasons. Or, this year may surprise many college football geeks who have written off Clemson in this round of the national title hunt. Noting this either-or situation, simply stated, it’s why fans watch the games. Below are some things to ponder as Clemson drives into the 2022 slate of games.
William Christopher “Dabo” Swinney. Since moving from wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator to head coach when Tommy Bowden resigned in the middle of the 2008 season, Dabo has either been ridiculed because of his nickname (a twisting of older brother Tripp’s phrase “that boy” when referring to Swinney) or his down-home personality, or praised for his high energy and winning results on and off the football sidelines. He entered the 2022 season with a stunning 150-36 record and has two national titles to his name. (Clemson’s first national crown came with a 22-15 upset win over Nebraska in the 1982 Orange Bowl—and a subsequent probation period levied by the NCAA for recruiting violations.)
From all accounts, Swinney runs a tight and clean program. The Alabama native and alumnus of the University of Alabama has frequently been talked about as the successor to Crimson Tide head coach (and college football demigod with seven national titles with Alabama and LSU) Nick Saban. Clemson, however, has rewarded Dabo handsomely. He’s set to make $8.5 million this year and is projected to earn more each year through the 2028 season.
Dabo’s Coordinators. This fall will test Coach Swinney’s effectiveness for promoting assistants into prominence. Longtime defensive coordinator Brent Venables left last year to become the head coach at Oklahoma, while offensive coordinator Tony Elliott left to take the head coaching job at Virginia. To replace Venables, Swinney tapped Wes Godwin. Godwin came to Clemson as a graduate assistant and direct assistant to Venables from 2009-2014, moved on to the NFL ranks as an assistant with the Arizona Cardinals, and returned to Clemson in 2018 as a senior defensive assistant. For offensive coordinator, Swinney named former Tigers quarterback Brandon Streeter. Streeter was under center from 1995-1999 and has been an assistant at Clemson since 2015. Neither Godwin nor Streeter are expected to bring anything new to their fields, so what may be interesting to look for as the season progresses is how consistently Godwin continues with the Clemson defensive philosophy and how Streeter keeps the Tigers offense rolling.
D.J. Uiagalelei. OK, first things first. D.J.’s surname is pronounced “oo-ee-ANGH-guh-luh-LAY.” It’s best to practice pronouncing Uiagalelei in front of a mirror so you can see how the name rolls off the tongue. Phonetics aside, Uiagalelei (of Samoan descent) is a junior in his second year starting for the Tigers. He took over when Trevor Lawrence moved on to the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. The 2021 season was a struggle for the 6-feet, 4-inch, 260-pound athlete, as he completed 54 percent of his passes, threw just nine touchdowns and was intercepted 10 times. Clemson’s defense remained top-notch, but spotty offensive production that year cost the Tigers a run for the national title. They ended up beating Iowa State 20-13 in the Cheez-It Bowl to finish the season 9-3, a record good enough for any other program, yet not for a team used to confetti and trophies in the final game. This season Uiagalelei seeks redemption and a return fulfillment of his abilities as a 5-star recruit coming out of high school. His ability to throw the ball accurately downfield, to escape trouble using his legs and powerful body, and his experience could be the indicator of whether Clemson plays for the golden football or for just another bowl full of crackers.
Facility upgrades. Clemson Memorial Stadium, AKA Death Valley, was built in 1941-1942 and now seats 82,500. Phase I of renovations approved in July 2021 was completed before the season and includes a WestZone Concourse Club, a 600-seat indoor/outdoor space behind the west end zone and a new 125-feet-by-57-feet video board with lights and sound placed behind the east end zone. The new video board will be raised high enough to allow people standing outside the Howard’s Rock entrance to view the field. (“Howard’s Rock” is the rock players and coaches touch before running out onto the field. Clemson legend Frank Howard was given the rock that came from Death Valley, CA. Before the rock’s aura became equitable to that of the stone from which Excalibur was pulled, Coach Howard allegedly used the rock to keep his office door open.)
Big Games in the Valley? I guess we shall see. Clemson opens its home slate with Furman and Louisana Tech and opens its ACC schedule on the road at Wake Forest. The Tigers play host to N.C. State Oct. 1, Syracuse Oct. 22. and wraps up the season with home games against Louisville, Miami, and in-state rival South Carolina. Road games also include Boston College Oct. 8, Florida State Oct. 15, and Notre Dame Nov. 5. The 2022 schedule indicates that if the Tigers and first-year offensive coordinator Wes Godwin can work out the kinks in the Uiagalelei-run offense, they can make another dominant run in the conference, best the Gamecocks for the eighth year in a row, and be in contention for the Final Four again.
About that rivalry … Clemson has a huge edge in the Clemson-Carolina series that dates back to 1896 and known officially as the Palmetto Bowl since 2014. The Tigers lead the series 72-42-4 after 118 games, and had no trouble with the Gamecocks in a 30-0 shutout victory at Williams-Brice Stadium last November. Come Nov. 26 of this year, previous records will be discarded and a week of good- and bad-natured insults from both fan bases will fly furiously until kickoff. If you’re new to the rivalry, never be shy to ask about historic moments. For instance: “What about The Prank?” (In 1961 USC’s Sigma Nu fraternity dressed up as Clemson players and hit the field acting silly and clumsy while the Clemson band struck up “Tiger Rag,” thinking that the true Tigers had taken the field.)
The Proving Grounds
It seems like every fall the University of South Carolina football program has something to prove to itself and to its fans. The Gamecocks’ only championships are an Atlantic Coast Conference title in 1969 and the Southeastern Conference Eastern division title in 2010. In and around those titles blossomed some great teams … and some not so great teams. Last season under the guidance of first-year coach Shane Beamer, USC got off to a shaky start, yet rallied to whip SEC East rival Florida 40-17, and two weeks later beat SEC West opponent Auburn 21-17. Finishing the regular season 6-6, the Gamecocks went on to overpower the ACC’s North Carolina 38-21 in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl (in defense of the yucky bowl name, Duke’s is officially the best mayonnaise in the world).
Noting the team’s last victory of the 2021 season, Gamecock Nation is loaded with hope this fall. Not only does Beamer come into his second year as head coach, the team will also have a 5-star transfer under center – former Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler. For these and other reasons, USC looks to have an energized year on the field – and hopes to prove to the state and the rest of the SEC that the Gamecocks should not be overlooked in the coming years. Below are some reasons why Gamecock Nation will be tuning in and poring over statistics and video replays.
Spencer Rattler. Rattler is by far the biggest get that USC has ever acquired, aside from 1980 Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers. A five-star recruit coming out of Pinnacle High School in Phoenix, Ariz., Rattler signed with Oklahoma in 2019 and as a redshirt freshman in 2020 led the Sooners to a 9-2 record, their sixth straight Big 12 Conference championship and then crushing then-No.7 Florida 55-20 in the Cotton Bowl. Rattler’s 2021 season proved less fortunate – he passed for 1,483 yards and had 11 touchdowns to five interceptions, but head coach Lincoln Riley eventually benched Rattler in favor of Caleb Williams. Rattler entered the NCAA Transfer Portal that November. This is where the USC-Oklahoma connection really paid off for the Gamecocks. Beamer, who coached tight ends and was an assistant head coach to Coach Riley from 2018-2020, had a sideline view of Rattler’s abilities in 2020.
Rattler, who has two years of playing eligibility, announced Dec. 13, 2021 that he would transfer to USC. Gamecock Nation exploded with joy and Gamecock Radio bloated the airwaves with Rattler talk and projections. With this backstory complete, the proving ground for Rattler is now. Was his 2020 season a one-and-done? Was his 2021 season a write-off? Anyone? Anyone?
Beamer Ball, Season Two. Besides having been a prime recruiter for the Gamecocks in 2007-2010 who notched a No.12 recruiting class under Steve Spurrier in 2009 and three Top-25 recruiting classes in a row, he is the son of legendary Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer, who posted 280 career wins and led the Hokies from 1987-2015. In short, Shane Beamer has been around college football for his entire life. He came back to South Carolina for his first head coaching job, and with that came a huge responsibility. The team he inherited from Will Muschamp, who was fired in the middle of the 2020 season, was a mess of a few good players mixed in with a lot of average recruits with a reputation of playing wildly inconsistent football.
For instance, the 2019 Gamecocks finished 4-8, but somehow knocked off then-No.3 Georgia Between the Hedges (the Bulldogs’ Sanford Stadium in Athens). So, Beamer had – and still has – a lot of work ahead of him. His 2021 Gamecocks suffered with a terrible offensive line that allowed for average defensive lines to break up offensive plays. Georgia, the eventual 2021-2022 national champions, manhandled the Gamecocks early in the season, as did an up-and-coming Tennessee team. USC hit rock bottom with a 44-14 crushing at Texas A&M Oct. 23, but the Gamecocks rebounded with the upset wins at Florida and over Auburn. With the Auburn upset, USC became bowl-eligible for the first time since 2018, and then dismissed UNC in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. Since the season ended, Beamer’s team has picked up not only Rattler, but Rattler’s former OU teammate, tight end Austin Stogner.
USC’s transfer class this year is 10 players, including Rattler, Stogner, and Georgia running back Lovasea Carroll. The recruiting class to go along with the transfers is ranked 22nd in the nation. What will be seen this fall is whether the new recruits and the seasoned veterans can absorb the enthusiasm and energy of the head coach and deliver convincing victories.
Marcus Satterfield. Beamer’s offensive coordinator garnered much heat and beautiful profanity from the fans, mostly for busted plays and total ineffectiveness of the game plan in the first half of the season. The offense finished ranked 116th in yardage and 109th in scoring, despite a top-notch defense that forced 23 turnovers and often gave the offense the ball with good field position. This fall is likely make-or-break for Satterfield, who among other jobs was an assistant under Matt Ruhle for both the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and Big 12 team Baylor before coming to South Carolina.
A Decent Schedule? South Carolina has non-SEC games against Georgia State, Charlotte, South Carolina State, and of course, Clemson. The SEC slate includes Georgia Sept. 17, Texas A&M Oct. 22, and Tennessee Nov. 19—all at Williams-Brice Stadium. Those three teams beat USC last year by a combined score of 129-47 in 2021. The Gamecocks play at Arkansas Sept. 10, Kentucky Oct. 8, Missouri at home Oct. 29, at Vanderbilt Nov. 5, and at Florida Nov. 12. Upon looking at the schedule, an optimist could see eight wins right off, even by thinking USC would lose to Georgia, A&M, Tennessee, and maybe Arkansas. With that said, this team has a potential to shock some teams that blew the Gamecocks into feathers last year. Gosh. I’m skeptical and don’t have much stake in Gamecock Nation, but I think this team may actually light the scoreboard up. Or not. I’ll be watching just in case.
And About that Rivalry … Yes, Clemson owns a huge win advantage over Carolina. Yes, Clemson won the last eight games. But this year may bring a little bit of the unknown into Death Valley Nov. 26. Will Spencer Rattler be the real deal? Will the hyper-energized Beamer see his team play with the vigor that he expects and encourages? (Will the Clemson offense flounder and flop for a second straight year? Better leave it to the Clemson folks to answer that.) Just going by my (large) gut, I’m thinking the 119th rendition of the Palmetto Bowl could be fire, and could even result in a Gamecocks win. That would be the ultimate proof of the Gamecocks’ improvement after a tumultuous eight years.