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Clemson vs. South Carolina, the overwhelming narrative

To star in a major college football rivalry is to forever become a part of local lore, whether that means being reduced to a character or enshrined as a hero.

Streeter Lecka

Clemson, SC - Mumford & Sons?

"Seriously. Mumford & Sons."

You don't listen to Mumford & Sons.

"I swear. I’ll show you my Spotify."

It's almost noon on Tuesday in Clemson, and this is the first conversation Tajh Boyd has had about something other than football in close to six hours. He's done press conferences, film sessions, and meetings and had a litany of requests for autographs and iPhone photos.

And it's South Carolina week ...

"Spotify does some great things. I used to use the whole Kazaa thing and try and illegally download music. But you might as well pay $9.99 a month and get everything I want instead of just one album."

... so that means it's Jadeveon Clowney week, too.

"Alright," he says, pulling out a cracked iPhone. "We've got Wiz Khalifa, over here a girl named Jhené Aiko, Mumford & Sons, over here a little bit of rap ... Kendrick Lamar, Kid Cudi. Drake is always a good one. Got some Lil Wayne ..."

Tajh Boyd and I are in the club level of Memorial Stadium's recently constructed WestZone, a glass pavilion that overlooks the famous Death Valley field. It's been a morning of rote questions and answers, all rooted in the life-and-death seriousness of beating the Gamecocks. Clemson must preserve a potential BCS at-large bid, and simply must, must, must stop USC's Palmetto winning streak at four games.

So we take a break to eat some Chick-fil-A and talk about music and animals. Boyd pounces on the chance to move away from football momentarily.

"John Mayer, John Mayer’s my guy. Got some slow jams on here ... Lumineers, that whole crew. The XX. Lot of people don’t know about The XX. Very smooth. And Foster the People. I went out to California and heard Foster the People and it changed my life."


"Well, not really. They didn’t change my life, but they’re good. I even like Swedish house music. Someone like Avicii and House Mafia, they have some really good stuff. I’m into Sublime, Slightly Stoopid ..."

I tell Boyd that I still listen to The Clipse, a Virginia rap outfit from the same 757 Virginia area code as him. They were around when I was in college, I tell him, and I feel incredibly old saying this.

"I remember meeting those guys," he says. "It was funny, they were giving out VHS copies of 'Grindin',' and they came out to, like, track practice to hand ‘em out. A year later the video comes out on national TV."

The field within Memorial unfolds below us, toward the famous Hill on the east side. This is by no means a house Boyd built, but it's an imposing testament to how important his many accomplishments are in this particular college football fiefdom. If nothing else, it's a hell of a view. Yet Boyd is steady on his phone or eye-to-eye in conversation, never contemplative, awed or emboldened.

"You don’t have to go out there and tell these guys how important this game is. We all know." -Tajh Boyd

"I want a llama. I do. I want a few dogs. Maybe a ferret. Nah, never mind. Those things are terrible. My mind wanders, though. If I could have some land and a greenhouse, and in the greenhouse with all the plants and flowers, I want an owl. I think that would be cool. Just kinda like... 'HOO.'"

Boyd seems averse towards soaking in anything greater than the immediate, which might be the secret to true happiness, full-blown denial, or a healthy mix of both.

"I was going to get a snake until I watched Discovery Channel. Changed my mind. Not my thing."

He'll admit later that he hasn't thought about his Clemson legacy (more than 12,000 total yards and 127 touchdowns, a conference title, bowl trips, and a 31-8 record as a starter), just as he seems equally unconcerned with the meaning of his 0-for mark against Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks.

"It’s a little bit overblown," he says regarding the hype of the South Carolina game. He seems to be analyzing the standard throwaway questions he's fielded, such as whether or not he and his teammates are treating this week any differently, a true by-the-numbers media question for a college football rivalry game. Boyd makes a face thinking about it.

"You don’t have to go out there and tell these guys how important this game is. We all know. You don’t want to be the butt of the jokes. It’s a state rivalry. It’s played 365 days a year. But at the same time you gotta go out there and perform. There’s no need to get uptight. Don’t make something into something it’s not."

Through the course of the morning I hear Boyd reaffirm publicly that he is not "afraid" of Jadeveon Clowney four separate times.

Since July, when Carolina's all-everything defensive end boldly declared that he could sense before the snap when opposing quarterbacks were scared of him -- specifically naming Boyd as an example -- the Clemson quarterback has refuted the idea of his alleged fear with a friendly shrug. He has no idea how many times he's been asked.

"People ... people try to take stuff and run with it. When you’re in competition, talking while competing is everything for some guys. Some guys talk more than others. Growing up, even for the environment I was in and the positions I played, I’ve been one of those guys who just kind of let it go out there on the field. I think it’s just what your culture is, what you’re accustomed to doing."

Clowney's comments are compounded by South Carolina's dominance. But also by his own. Entering their third and final meeting, Clowney has sacked Boyd 5.5 times, 4.5 coming in a 2012 dismantling in which the Cocks allowed Clemson only 49 snaps.

"Oh no, he’s fast as shit man, for sure. He’s a fast guy. There’s not many guys like that, but the guy's not unbreakable. Every player in the country, any top team in the country will have a player like that. But maybe a guy like Clowney, at his level, maybe he only comes once every 10 years."

Earlier in the morning, during Boyd's weekly meeting with the local media (affectionately dubbed "Tuesdays with Tajh"), he mentions the previously unpublicized fact that during Clowney's recruiting visit to Clemson, Boyd served as his host.

"That happens a lot. It wasn't really special or anything," he explains at lunch. "When you get to be a senior, you can sometimes get the coaches to pick someone else to host so you can have a little time to yourself."

Where did he stay at your house?

"On the couch."

So, uh, does he snore or anything?

"Who, Clowney?"


"I don't know," he laughs. "I didn't watch the guy sleep."

Chad Morris lets out a long sigh. He's just finished his own round of interviews.

"It’s unreal. It’s unbelievable," he says in response to the multitude of questions he fielded about Clemson's time-of-possession stats. "We want to play fast. Time of possession only matters when you aren’t scoring."

Like countless offensive coordinators before him, Morris is juggling the Clowney headline hot potato. And he's got the added weight of Clemson's four-game series losing streak. To most reporters, all of South Carolina's defensive worth is credited to a single, unstoppable humanoid. Even with pundits dogging his stat line and nitpicking his injuries in 2013, we all can't seem to help being awestruck. The conversation has devolved into reporters basically asking what in the world a coach plans to do against Clowney, and the coach politely shrugging through his answer.

"Give them credit. They’re a great football team, but at the end of the day, it’s about us," Morris says repeatedly. During our Tuesday lunch, Boyd tries to distill the essence of that philosophy, showing that his disposition towards the fishbowl life of a top college quarterback is not entirely unlike the core of Morris' offensive philosophy: you do you. Provided that happens, good things usually follow.

"You’ve got to have an answer to each problem, and you’ve got to be able to execute that answer," Morris says. "But there’s going to be opportunities Saturday. There will be four or five plays you’ve just got to make. It comes to execution, which is about us. If we can’t execute, or if we miss two or three blocks, well, that’s about us."

Morris' stump speech for Boyd's NFL Draft stock centers around his decision-making, not his considerable athleticism or speed. In the Morris system, it's not that there's just one right answer. Up-tempo spread acolytes believe that, depending on the decision of the quarterback, it's often about finding the best right answer. This is where Boyd has shined as an upperclassmen, per Morris.

"I'd say other than his footwork, his biggest improvement is that he was wanting to memorize every play," says Morris. "He had to understand that there’s an answer in every play, that if they do this, you can do this. And so there are answers to everything that comes up. You have to make a decision based on what happens, but you can’t if you try to memorize it."

"So let's say I'm in standard personnel," says Boyd, "which is usually [two receivers and two running backs or three receivers and one running back]. A lot of times I can give the ball or keep it, I can throw a pop-pass out there, or I can check out of the play completely and still go to whatever pass play we want. So essentially, there’s like four options on one play call, plus sometimes we can run triple-option inside, and so that adds one more."

"Knowing where to go with the ball," Morris echoes. "It’s all about answers. If they do X, what’s your answer? Take what they give with you. Just be the best Tajh Boyd."

Outside it's pouring rain. Inside it's temporarily quiet. All morning, Boyd hasn't turned down a single request. The journey from the player's lounge to the club level includes two autographs for a charity drive and an elderly man requesting Tajh send a birthday video to a grandson. And a stack of TBD phone interviews for radio stations and reporters are wedged into every free moment of this, his assigned media day, which also includes class and film review.

He breezes through the process. He recognizes a construction worker finishing a repair project in a hallway.

"Hadn't seen you around here since like October, right?"

I chase down the carpenter later in the day, who is part of a local crew, but not a university employee. Tajh was right.

"I was here about six weeks ago, and he introduced himself to me in the hall," he said, smiling with astonishment.

There's another story I'm told by various staffers, about how the easygoing Boyd was assertive enough to silence the mighty.

Clemson's Board of Regents is invited to bring spouses and travel with the team to one road game each season. On the Friday night before Clemson's 49-point win at Virginia on Nov. 2, the vacationing regents were allowed to attend team meetings.

"So the group, they're out on the road, really enjoying the trip, but they're making some noise," video services director Rick Bagby recalls. "Then Tajh -- in front of the entire team, coaches, everybody -- stands up, introduces himself, and then asks the Board of Regents to settle it down. And sure enough, they went silent. I mean, there's a former [United States] ambassador in that group. You don't see a college kid do that everyday, or ever."

"Tajh stands up, introduces himself, and then asks the Board of Regents to settle it down."

Boyd is the undisputed king of Clemson, South Carolina. Tigers athletic director Dan Radakovich admits Boyd is an administrator's dream, even without mentioning the fact that he's choir-boy low-key for a star quarterback. He's a self-described homebody whose NFL-money dream purchase is a home theater system, yet he works crowds with the skill of a career politician.

"I've seen that he is unlike a lot of players at that level," Radakovich says, "in that he’s very comfortable with conversation with people, A, who he doesn’t know very well, and, B, people who are outside the organization. It all kind of goes back to the outstanding upbringing he’s had."

There's been a steady management of Tahj Time in the national media. He entered his senior year in Heisman contention and recovered from a brutal blowout against Florida State to serve in many ways as the de facto face of the program, a position at the collegiate level almost exclusively reserved for head coaches.

"He's been open and willing to talk about anything," says ESPNU anchor Dari Nowkhah, who interviewed Boyd as part of a weekly segment throughout the 2013 season. "He even gave us score predictions for other games without being asked. His personality is always loose, and it's really come out in those segments. He's going to walk into a NFL locker room, and everyone's going to love him."

Defeating Clemson's offense is impossible if you try and out-scheme scheme. Florida State won not by trying to out-position its defenders against the Tigers' spread. They did it by beating athletes with athletes in the pass rush and building secondary coverage that's sound enough to tackle in open space and fast enough to confuse reads.

That's how South Carolina dismantles Clemson for a fifth time. It's a 31-17 Gamecocks win in front of a cold and unhinged Columbia crowd still clinging to hopes of a SEC East title. Like 2012, USC forced turnovers and bad decisions -- no right answers -- in the second half. On the heels of a masterful, methodical, 15-play, 88-yard touchdown drive that tied the game at 17 in the third, South Carolina's Connor Shaw would run the Gamecocks back down the field and go up 24-17 early in the fourth.

With the game still in hand, Boyd would fumble on the USC 33-yard line when hit by defensive end Chaz Sutton, one of South Carolina's quietly ferocious front-seveners not named Clowney. The error was enough to seal the game, with USC's offense tacking on another score amid a spiraling chain of Clemson errors. Down 14 and pressing, Boyd would throw two terrible interceptions in Clemson's final four plays, and the Gamecocks would grind out No. 5, a first in the history of the rivalry.

In his own words earlier in the week, Boyd's summary was prophetic.

"[South Carolina] is not doing anything out of the ordinary. From a schematic standpoint, everyone wants to figure out a way to stop it, but some teams don’t. Florida State doesn’t. They want to go out there and play their style of ball. You know what you’re going to to get when you go play a Florida State, same with South Carolina. Same with Georgia this year. Certain teams are just going to do what they do to the best of their abilities."

Clowney would record his first sack since September at Boyd's expense. The quarterback, statistically one of the greatest in school history, will leave the program winless vs. South Carolina and sacked five times in his last try.

Physically pinned against a wall underneath Williams-Brice Stadium, a sober-faced Boyd faces a barrage of TV cameras. He's barely audible, as above him thousands of Gamecocks fans are still in the stands, desperately balancing their five-peat celebration with a Jumbotron watch party of the live Missouri vs. Texas A&M game, which could send them to the SEC title, a feat that would surely dig even further into Clemson's state pride. Despite their presence all around, Boyd is not interested in histrionics.

"Everybody's going to make a huge deal about it, and I understand that, but Clemson will beat South Carolina again. There's life after this."

"I know what 'Clemsoning' is," Boyd admits on Tuesday. "It relates to the past, the previous year at Clemson, before we got here. I think it was, you know, it’s essentially defined as Clemson losing to teams they’re not supposed to. But we haven’t done that since I’ve been here. My redshirt sophomore year, we lost to NC State and Georgia Tech, and obviously we were supposed to win those games, but other than that, it doesn't happen anymore."

Clemsoning is a poor word choice to describe the skid to South Carolina. For the first time in the history of the 111 meetings between the schools, South Carolina has won five in a row. Spurrier has gently taunted Clemson into an apoplectic state of rage.

In the process, the once-forgettable rivalry has risen to national levels of acclaim. The 2013 meeting was the first in history in which both schools were ranked in the top 10 nationally.

"My question is, why is it 'Clemsoning?' It's not like this is the only team that's ever lost games they weren't supposed to," Boyd said.

Boyd will leave the program in a manner that reflects how Clemson football is perceived by most of the college football world: really good, but still seemingly hexed by themselves. Or by their formidable former whipping post downstate. Talented and exciting, except for those rare-but-big moments when the system fails.

Then, perhaps, a bit picked on?

"Sometimes yes," he agrees. "I do think there are people out there that really hate to see Clemson succeed."

Then he laughs.

"I can’t put too much stock into it. Previously in my career, I'd try and put too much into it. The Florida State game, after that game, it was what it was. We didn’t play a good game, but we let it go. I lost a little bit of sleep, but not much. It's like I learned from my dad: you have to appreciate the simple things a whole lot. Same goes in football."

He tells me this as he's on hold, waiting to speak to another national reporter about Clowney.

Photos: Steven Godfrey, SB Nation; Streeter Lecka, Getty


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