By PETE IACOBELLI
The Associated Press
CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson is moving forward with plans to host its scheduled football game today while Hurricane Florence wreaks havoc on the Carolinas’ coastline with officials bracing for historic flooding and record-setting rainfall that has forced people to evacuate their homes to escape the wrath of the storm.
School officials reiterated their plans Friday morning, saying the kickoff against Georgia Southern remains set for noon today.
“Clemson Athletics and the University administration continue to monitor the forecast related to Hurricane Florence very carefully,” the university statement said. “The safety of fans and the student-athletes from both universities are our top priority.”
But while Clemson officials believe the school and stadium — which are about 250 miles from the South Carolina coast — are not in harm’s way, there has been backlash for what is being viewed by some as a narrow view of the situation.
There have been questions about how safe it can possibly be to have about 80,000 people — many traveling on South Carolina highways to and from the game in what could be rapidly changing conditions — together for football game and placing more demands on already strained state resources.
Instead of the usual 100-110 state troopers on hand for a game, there will only be 16.
Clemson (2-0) is the lone major conference school from the Carolinas and Virginia playing its scheduled home game today. Hurricane Florence made landfall on Friday and began a trek expected to take it into South Carolina.
No. 13 Virginia Tech, North Carolina and North Carolina State all canceled home games. Virginia’s home game with Ohio was moved to Nashville, Tennessee. Clemson’s state rival less than 150 miles East, South Carolina, called off tonight’s game due to the storm.
Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner said canceling his team’s game was the only choice to make. Hotel rooms and resources football fans might have used in Columbia would be freed up for coastal evacuees. Of all the things people might need this weekend, Tanner told 107.5 FM, “a football game wasn’t at the top of the list.”
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said at his Friday afternoon briefing the decision whether to hold the game was completely up to Clemson. When asked if he had talked with Clemson officials, McMaster said “not about that.”
At the briefing state officials said 441,000 people had evacuated the state’s coast in advance of Florence.
Clemson’s decision to play a game that is not expected to be competitive — the Tigers are 33¢-point favorites — has raised questions about the school’s priorities.
Former PGA Tour golfer and South Carolina Gamecock Kyle Thompson said on Twitter : “I may get blasted for this, but I’m surprised Clemson is playing a football game tomorrow with Hurricane Florence bearing down on SC. Seems like a money grab.
“Georgia Southern quarterback Shai Werts is from Clinton, South Carolina — about 90 minutes southeast of Clemson — and said earlier this week that this game is more important to him than others. Despite the impact of Florence, Werts said many family members are expected to attend today’s game.
“I would like to say it would be just another game, but it’s not,” Werts said. “Growing up there, just going to one of those places I wanted to go to.”
Clemson officials did move up kickoff to noon from its planned 3:30 p.m. start. Athletic director Dan Radakovich said the earlier start time gives both the teams and the fans time to clear the area before Florence’s effects hit the Clemson area tonight and Sunday.
The National Weather Service forecast calls for just a 20 percent chance of rain today at Clemson and the chances for rainfall go up to 70 percent tonight and 90 percent Sunday. The weather service also has issued a flash flood warning for the area from this morning through Monday.
But the backdrop of the contest and the potentially good weather at Clemson includes winds from Hurricane Florence ripping through communities that are part of the school’s footprint, both for students and football recruits.
Florence made landfall in North Carolina on Friday, but is moving at a very slow speed, making its path difficult to predict.
As the storm pounded away, it unloaded heavy rain , flattened trees, chewed up roads and knocked out power to more than a half-million homes and businesses.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is trusting Clemson’s administrators that playing early is the right path.
“There’s a lot going on,” Swinney said. “This is a monster storm and who knows what could happen. You just have to rely on folks that this is what they do.”
There are many reasons for Clemson to want to play the game.
The Tigers are ranked No. 2 in the country and are seeking a fourth consecutive trip to the College Football Playoff. They are heavily favored against Georgia Southern and at the end of the year, a decisive win could be the difference between getting into the playoffs or staying home.
Clemson’s timing to try and reschedule is troublesome, too. It’s off-week is Oct. 13 and playing then would mean 10 consecutive games leading into its expected appearance in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship on Dec. 1.
There are financial considerations, as well. Clemson earned close to $20 million in football ticket sales in 2016 and losing a game would cost the athletic department several million dollars in revenue.
But Radakovich has insisted safety is the school’s top priority. The Clemson AD has asked fans planning to attend to leave earlier for arrival and have patience as Clemson will have operate with different traffic control personnel.