Two weeks ago, South Carolina football players heard some strange sounds in their stadium: hoots, cries of anger directed at them. Even a few boos.

For that to happen here, something extraordinary must take place. Fourteen days ago it did. The Gamecocks, with a four-game winning streak, managed to lose to the University of the Pacific, a team scheduled for the specific purpose of giving South Carolina a guaranteed November victory.

Pacific humiliated the Gamecocks, left Coach Jim Carlen sputtering in frustration and the bowl scouts shaking their heads and looking elsewhere. The Pacific game did one other thing: it enhanced the importance of Saturday's game here against No. 2-ranked, 10-0 Clemson for 6-4 South Carolina.

A victory would likely put South Carolina into a bowl for a third straight season. It also would be a boost for the Gamecocks to beat a Clemson team that has won four of the last five, seven of the last 10 and has a 45-30-3 record overall in this series, which dates to 1896.

The Tigers are the ACC champions and are expected to accept an Orange Bowl bid after Saturday's game. Even with NCAA probation a postseason possibility, so is a national championship.

South Carolina can end that with a victory. That is why this game means everything to the home team. "They know exactly how much this game means to us and they would love to stop us right here," Clemson Coach Danny Ford said. "I expect they'll play their best game of the season."

Clemson went into last season's finale as low as it had been in years. The Tigers were 5-5, had lost four of five and there were rumors that Ford, in his second year, would be fired.

South Carolina was 8-2, had accepted a Gator Bowl bid and knew that George Rogers was about to win the Heisman Trophy. It was a prohibitive favorite going into the game.

Clemson won, 27-6. If Ford's job was in jeopardy, the outcome saved him. South Carolina went on to a humiliating 37-9 loss to Pittsburgh in the Gator Bowl.

Ford, learning from the mistakes of 1980, has guided his team to 10 more wins since last year's game. The Gamecocks have had their moments this season -- a 31-13 upset of North Carolina -- but now find themselves in Clemson's role of a year ago: underdogs.

What's more, there have been rumors in recent weeks that Carlen, in his seventh season here, might leave at season's end. He has denied the rumors. After the North Carolina victory, Carlen, 48, said "people in the Clemson network" started the rumors he was leaving.

But that is the nature of this rivalry. These schools are separated by 140 miles of South Carolina highway and years of disputes.

That is why this game is South Carolina's chance to salvage a difficult season and to wipe out the ugly memory of Pacific: It is a chance to stop Clemson. In this state, whether here or down the road, hurting the "other school" may be more important than helping yourself.