While the win at Wake Forest made Clemson bowl eligible, much more is at stake at 7 p.m. Saturday versus South Carolina (ESPN2). A win against the SEC East champs would alter perception, create momentum heading into the offseason, and allow Clemson coach Dabo Swinney to salvage something from a season littered with more disappointments than successes.
Swinney knows all about the importance of rivalry games. He played or coached in the Alabama-Auburn rivalry game for 13 years. He was carried off the Memorial Stadium turf in 2008 after a victory against South Carolina helped him shed the interim head coach label.
"It's always a huge, huge game," Swinney said. "Playing in a state championship game is all the focus you'll ever need."
Swinney brushed aside any advantage Clemson might have with South Carolina looking ahead to the SEC title game next week. Clemson stumbled in the rivalry game last season in Columbia, perhaps in part to looking ahead to playing in the ACC title game.
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"None of that other stuff matters," Swinney said. "(At Alabama) nobody was thinking about next week's game, we were trying to beat Auburn.
"It's about trying to be the dominant team in the state."
Entering rivalry week, reigning state champ South Carolina holds that distinction with an 8-3 record, division title and what Swinney calls the most "balanced offense" Clemson has faced this season.
South Carolina has a freshman sensation in running back Marcus Lattimore and a gifted receiver in Alshon Jeffery. Both players have gone over 1,000 yards from scrimmage with three games to play.
Jeffery has 1,210 receiving yards this season, and his 6-foot-4 and 230-pound frame will give Clemson's defensive backs trouble.
Lattimore has 1,066 rushing yards (5.1 ypc) and has scored 19 touchdowns.
His balance, vision and power will test a Clemson defense that has improved against the run this season.
"We'll have our hands full," Swinney said. "(USC quarterback) Stephen Garcia is going to take shots with the deep ball. (Lattimore) is an excellent football player who has made a real impact on their team. The quarterback is playing well ...to me they are probably the most balanced team as far as being able to make big plays.
"For us to win we have to keep playing well on defense."
South Carolina's skill player surplus versus Clemson's lack of playmakers might explain the two game difference in the rivals' records this season.
"The biggest thing for us not having a big margin for error is being productive in the kicking game," Swinney said. "With the way our defense is playing we could have easily picked up a few more wins."