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In South Carolina there has existed since 1896 an institution known as Big Thursday. It occurs during State Fair Week in the capital city of Columbia, and it features pretty girls, fluff candy and a football game between Clemson College and the University of South Carolina.
Big Thursday 1956 was in many ways much like those that had preceded it. As always, Clemson students held a solemn mock funeral for the Carolina Gamecock. As always, Carolina students burned a huge effigy of the Clemson Tiger on the steps of the capitol. As always, Carolina freshmen happily took on the task of ringing the chapel bell unceasingly for 24 hours before the game. But this time, for a change, the Tiger and the Gamecock were playing for more than the football championship of the state of South Carolina.
Thanks to a confounding reversal in the fortunes of the perennial Atlantic Coast Conference giants, Duke and Maryland, the Big Thursday antagonists found themselves fighting for a place in the Orange Bowl next Jan. 1. There were simply no other logical contenders, surprisingly enough.
Neither is an exciting ball club. Neither is really top grade, either. Though both came to Big Thursday unbeaten in conference play, Clemson had been held to a tie by Florida, one of the more mundane members of the neighboring Southeast Conference; and Carolina had been beaten by Miami. Yet this scarcely mattered to the 35,000 witnesses who had bought their prized tickets back in July. As always, the seats had gone before there was a chance for private sale. Columbia funeral directors reported numerous calls from ticket-seekers inquiring whether any deceased customers mayhap had owned a ducat that they could negotiate for.
As expected, the game turned into a sullen, slow-moving affair between two teams to whom ball control is everything. Clemson never threw a pass all day, counting on powerful Halfback Joel Wells to gouge small but steady gains through the Carolina tackles. Carolina, frustrated in its attempts to spring their swift sophomore halfbacks—King Dixon and Alex Hawkins—wide around the ends, was also forced inside for short yardage. Never once in the game was a ball carrier loose in the secondary. Two big, fast crunching defenses took care of that. Painstakingly the two teams labored up and down the field, stringing three to five first downs together, then stalling against the rock like defenses.
The longest run of the day, a 39-yard punt return by Clemson Halfback Jim Coleman, set up the only score midway in the first quarter, putting the Tigers on Carolina's 36-yard line. With Wells and Coleman banging unceasingly at the tackles, Clemson covered the distance in nine plays, with Quarterback Charlie Bussey sneaking the final six inches and running the extra point across when the snap from center went awry.
Going for the tie, Carolina put on a long, slow drive in the fourth quarter, moving from its own 22 to Clemson's four in 20 laborious plays. There were just two minutes left. But seconds later, from a pileup on the two, a ball squirted loose to be covered in the end zone for a touchback by Clemson's Bussey. Time ran out and ecstatic Tiger rooters bore their heroes off the field 7-0 victors, sniffing orange blossoms all the way.
While the Atlantic Coast Conference stands topsy-turvy at midseason, the rugged Southeast Conference is running largely to form. Georgia Tech (5-0) fast, clever, resourceful and deep at all positions, stands high atop the conference and close to the very top nationally. The Yellow Jackets, who can use third-string backs without sacrificing appreciable offensive strength, get better every week. Their sole major hurdle en route to an unbeaten year and a sixth straight bowl appearance comes Nov. 10 against Tennessee (5-0). The beautifully-drilled Vols have come a long way on the strength of devastating single-wing blocking, an opportunistic defense and the multifarious talents of Tailback Johnny Majors, already hailed by General Bob Neyland as the best all-round tailback he ever saw. Tennessee will have its hands full with Georgia Tech and Mississippi later on, but remains a prime bowl candidate. The Tech game is the real test.
Waiting for the leaders to falter is Mississippi (4-2). The Rebels have the South's best fullback (and the country's best field goal kicker) in Paige Cothren and an imaginative attack operated by alternate Quarterbacks John Wallace Blalack and Ray Brown behind a big, fast line that once looked impregnable on defense. Their first loss (to Tulane) seemed like just one of those upsets, but when they dropped a 14-0 decision to Arkansas last Saturday night, their admirers began to wonder if they were good or lucky.
There is little to be said for or about the ridiculouslv unbalanced Southern Conference. West Virginia (3-3), Virginia Tech (6-1) and George Washington (5-0-1) spread-eagle a lackluster field. What's worse, there is no real way to tell which of the leaders is the best. West Virginia plays George Washington this weekend, but Virginia Tech meets neither this season. The Southern is a conference in name only.