Clemson University

Palmetto pigskin pride

South Carolina is off to a 3-0 start and has risen to No. 12 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.
South Carolina is off to a 3-0 start and has risen to No. 12 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.

COLUMBIA -- Nothing makes Clemson and South Carolina supporters happier than winning. Right now, there are lots of happy football fans in the Palmetto State.

South Carolina's two major programs share 3-0 records and spots among the country's top 15 teams. It's one of only five times in history -- both schools began football in the 1890s -- and the first since 2000 that the two state rivals have gone undefeated this long at the same time.

In a state without major pro sports, it doesn't get much more enjoyable for fans than this.

"I wish we could stop now," Clemson coach Tommy Bowden says.

The Gamecocks improved to 12th in this week's top 25. The Tigers moved up to 15th in the AP poll. The team's share 14th in this week's coach's poll.

There's no Major League Baseball, NFL, NBA or NHL to carry sports fans in South Carolina. So college football is it. About 80,000 flock to Clemson's Death Valley or South Carolina's Williams-Brice Stadium for every game. Fans here track recruiting and spring football practice the way other people follow baseball's pennant races.

The Tigers and Gamecocks were unranked when the season began. They both moved into the top 25 with wins over ranked teams -- Clemson defeated then-No. 19 Florida State on Labor Day night and South Carolina won at then-11th-ranked Georgia on Sept. 8.

Despite ho-hum victories over Football Championship Subdivision clubs last week, Clemson and South Carolina each shot up five spots in the national rankings.

"It's surprising we've come that far in two weeks," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. "But we appreciate it. Hopefully, we can stay up there."

That could be difficult. The 12th-ranked Gamecocks travel to play No. 2 LSU this Saturday while the 15th-ranked Tigers have a two-game road stretch at North Carolina State and Georgia Tech.

Both coaches see problems to solve if the winning is to continue.

So far, the Tigers have been led by their passing game and first-year starter Cullen Harper. Harper has completed better than 72 percent of his throws for 696 yards, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions.

The running attack, with the "Thunder and Lightning" duo of James Davis and C.J. Spiller, has been slower to gel this season with a combined 313 yards and three TDs. On defense, coaches have been bothered by the number of missed tackles and botched assignments.

One of Spurrier's biggest concerns is fifth-year senior quarterback Blake Mitchell. Against South Carolina State last weekend, Mitchell threw three touchdown passes, but also had three interceptions and a fumble.

Mitchell needs to find his confidence and rhythm, Spurrier says, for the Gamecocks to continue their perfect start.

South Carolina's won six straight games, the school's longest streak since winning the 2000 Outback Bowl and then starting 5-0 the next season under Lou Holtz.

The Gamecocks haven't won seven straight games since opening the 1984 season 9-0.

Clemson had only gone 3-0 once before since its last Atlantic Coast Conference championship in 1991. In Bowden's second season, the Tigers rose to No. 5 in the country off an 8-0 start. However, they lost three of their final four games and had not opened as strongly until now.

The benchmark for Clemson is its 12-0 national championship season of 1981. Clemson's longest win streak is 15 games, a stretch surrounding the school's 11-0 campaign in 1948.

While Bowden knows there are challenges ahead for the Tigers, he understands why his team has risen so quickly.

"It looks like the voting media are realizing, hey, regardless of who you're playing, if you win the game, you're doing pretty dag-gone good," he said.

The dream of every fan on both sides would have the two rivals undefeated when Clemson comes to South Carolina on Nov. 24 for their annual season-ending matchup. It's happened before. In 1928, 5-0 Clemson defeated 5-0 South Carolina 32-0. The next season, the 5-0 Tigers also ended their rival's perfect 4-0 start, 21-14.

There's a long, long way to go for that yearly fantasy to turn real. After three games, though, there's plenty for Clemson and South Carolina fans to smile about.

• NOTE: South Carolina defensive tackle Nathan Pepper has torn his left MCL and will be out for the remainder of the season, USC officials announced Monday.

• Top 25 polls • 4C