Maryland was going to regret this.
The Terrapins found themselves in prime position for an upset on Oct. 15 at home against 6-0 Clemson. They had just scored a touchdown to take a 45-42 lead with 7:35 left in the game, answering Clemson's attempt to come back from an 18-point second-quarter deficit.
The fans in College Park had barely finished celebrating when Maryland kicked off to Sammy Watkins, who had already set up Clemson's first touchdown with a 70-yard kickoff return. Watkins caught this one at the 11-yard line and sprinted untouched past the Terrapins for an 89-yard touchdown.
"You cannot kick it to that guy," said ESPNU color commentator Brian Griese.
"You've said that like three times tonight," said play-by-play announcer Clay Matvick. "Nobody's listening."
"He is too fast," Griese said. "This is C.J. Spiller all over again."
After Watkins' kickoff return for a touchdown, Clemson never trailed and won 56-45. That play remains one of the most significant of Clemson's season.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier hopes to see nothing that resembles it (or Spiller) when the Tigers play at South Carolina on Saturday night. The last time Clemson visited Columbia, Spiller returned the opening kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown, setting the Bowl Subdivision record for career kickoff return touchdowns. South Carolina went on to win 34-17.
By the time the week is over, South Carolina special teams coordinator John Butler and the Gamecocks' kickoff coverage unit will probably be sick of watching video of Watkins' return against Maryland. Spurrier is so concerned about his kickoff coverage that he might not even kick to Watkins, and instead have Jay Wooten bounce the kickoffs along the ground and let Clemson start at the 35 or 40.
That's not ideal, but better than a game-changing return touchdown.
Spurrier knows the Gamecocks can't afford to give Clemson's prolific offense a short field. He said South Carolina's kickoff coverage in Saturday's win over The Citadel was 'pitiful.' The Bulldogs had returns of 30 and 37 yards, both to the 37-yard line. Earlier this month, in a 44-28 loss at Arkansas, South Carolina gave up a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and a 32-yard return that set up a 63-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, immediately after the Gamecocks cut the lead to 30-28.
The Gamecocks rank No. 62 nationally with 21.4 yards allowed per kickoff return. Watkins is No. 21, with 26.4 yards per return. Wooten doesn't have a huge leg, either. He ranks 85th nationally with 61.2 yards per kickoff, though the bounce kickoffs have hurt his average. On 60 kickoffs this season, he has just four touchbacks.
When asked if he plans to kick off to Watkins, Spurrier chuckled and said, "Shoot, we couldn't even kick to The Citadel guy. We don't know exactly what we're going to do on kickoffs right now. But that's always a concern when the other team has a top return man. You hope that you don't let the return guy beat you."