How High can the Gamecocks Fly?
By Matt Smith
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For South Carolina, no longer is a successful season defined by going to a bowl game and beating Clemson.
In his seven years since taking over one of the SEC’s traditional bottom-feeders, Steve Spurrier has brought South Carolina to unprecedented heights. While Lou Holtz earned the Gamecocks a bit of respect in the early 2000s with back-to-back Outback Bowl victories, it is Spurrier who has rewritten the South Carolina record books.
His first season saw the Gamecocks beat Florida for the first time since joining the SEC. Two weeks earlier, South Carolina had gone into Neyland Stadium and beaten Spurrier’s old nemesis, Tennessee, for the first time since 1992. By 2010, Spurrier had won in every SEC East venue with the Gamecocks. At the same time that Spurrier accomplished that feat with a November 2010 win at Florida, South Carolina also clinched the SEC East title for the first time ever. Florida, Georgia and Tennessee had combined to win the first 18 division titles, but Spurrier accomplished what he set out to when he was hired in December of 2004: get to Atlanta.
While South Carolina was run over by Cam Newton and Auburn three weeks later in the Georgia Dome, the Gamecocks were far from just a one-hit wonder. The team won 11 games for the first time ever in 2011, capped by ending a three-game postseason losing streak with a 30-13 win over Nebraska in the Capital one Bowl.
However, something was missing. How can a fanbase whose team had gone 0-11 just over a decade earlier find fault with an 11-2 season? Success breeds expectations, and those expectations were ramped up last season after a taste of major success in 2010. However, after a four-turnover performance in a stunning home loss to Auburn, the Gamecocks quickly found themselves struggling to remain afoot in the SEC East race. Despite a Week 2 loss to South Carolina, Georgia rolled through a relatively light league schedule to finish 7-1. An expected loss at Arkansas officially put the Gamecocks behind the Bulldogs, and thoughts of a repeat trip to Atlanta were history.
A favorite in 12 of its 13 games, South Carolina felt it left something on the table, mostly on that October afternoon in Columbia against Auburn. Had they held on to beat the Tigers, the Gamecocks would have found themselves playing LSU in the SEC Championship Game with a chance to reach the BCS Championship Game, even with star running back Marcus Lattimore shelved at midseason with an ACL injury. Sure, the Gamecocks barely eeked past 7-6 teams Mississippi State and Florida, and could only hang with Arkansas for 30 minutes, but that’s life in the SEC.
Spinning forward to this fall, South Carolina is again loaded for a run at a division title, and perhaps more. Spurrier, never one to hide his opinions, expressed his thoughts on the promise of his team earlier this month at SEC Media Days.
“We’ve got a good team,” said the second-winningest coach in SEC history. “We’ve had some good teams at South Carolina the past few years. We’ve still not won the SEC. That’s our ultimate goal.”
Free safety D.J. Swearinger addressed the team’s desire for more than just another 11-win season.
“We just got to keep striving for excellence,” said the senior from Greenwood, S.C. “Our goal is to get to the top. 11-2 is not good enough in our eyes.”
Star receiver Alshon Jeffery left early for the NFL, but the Gamecocks add dynamic freshman Shaq Roland. Given the recent success of freshmen wide receivers in the league (Jeffery, Odell Beckham, A.J. Green, Julio Jones), it wouldn't be much of a shock to see Roland reach immediate stardom. Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor return to form perhaps the best defensive end duo in the country (I hear ya, Florida State and LSU fans), and Lattimore appears to be 100% for the start of fall camp later this week.
The Gamecocks were picked to finish second, behind Georgia, by SEC media earlier this month. While South Carolina does play Georgia at Williams-Brice Stadium this season (in October for the first time since 1971), they also draw LSU and Arkansas from the SEC West. Georgia faces neither team and misses Alabama as well. That raises the stakes for the Oct. 6 clash in Columbia. It’s a loss that Georgia can recover from, much as they did a year ago. However, it’s nearly impossible to envision a scenario where South Carolina can lose to the Bulldogs and still win the SEC East.
Should the Gamecocks miss out on a division title, even with the schedule disadvantage, it will be considered a disappointment in Columbia. With traditional powers Florida and Tennessee stuck in mediocrity, South Carolina could not have picked a better time to have arguably its most talented team of all-time. This is likely the final season for Lattimore (a junior), and there are seven senior starters on defense. 2012 may be the best chance for the Gamecocks to finally make some noise nationally.
The schedule is daunting, beginning with a nationally-televised Thursday night opener at Vanderbilt and concluding with the annual rivalry game with Clemson in Death Valley. Is an 11-1 season and a chance to play in Atlanta with national title dreams on the line really possible at South Carolina? Junior quarterback Connor Shaw believes they are.
“I came [to South Carolina] because we have the chance to do things that haven’t been done here before,” Shaw explained. “We have high goals and we expect to complete them.”
Everything hinges on the Georgia game. With more difficult games away from home this season than last (Auburn, Florida, Missouri), it’s difficult to foresee the Bulldogs sweeping their seven SEC games other than South Carolina. 6-2 seems likely for the ‘Dawgs if they stumble in Columbia.
The Gamecocks could be underdogs in as many as three other conference games – at LSU, at Florida, and Arkansas. Only one of those would have to be a victory – as well as not slipping up against Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee or Vanderbilt – for South Carolina to claim the East if Georgia finishes 6-2.
Anything less would leave South Carolina off of the national radar – the same place it has found itself throughout its football history. No longer is a successful season defined by going to a bowl game and beating Clemson. More is demanded – it’s Atlanta or bust. That’s the price of success, but one Gamecock players and fans will gladly pay.