This is probably the hardest recap I've had to do in my time blogging on South Carolina.
I'm not going to do the Five Points motif this week. Not because there's not plenty of material, but because it's so familiar. Defensive breakdowns. (And those who don't give Tyrone Nix a good deal of the blame for that loss need to either re-establish communication with the Planet Earth or leave a detailed defense -- no pun intended -- in the comments or diaries section, because I don't understand it.) An offense that did some good things, but not enough to win. Special teams breakdowns at the worst time. Blake throwing four or five interceptable balls, and lucking out by only getting picked two times. And Cory Boyd doing almost all that you could expect of him.
Is this just what South Carolina is? A team that will always be a few steps from greatness?
A better defense would have allowed South Carolina to win against Arkansas, probably Clemson and maybe Florida. Tennessee, though, probably would have been a loss no matter what, and LSU was all but unwinnable.
And Vanderbilt ... Vanderbilt. One game that could draw the line between going to a bowl and staying home. And it was against the worst team in the division.
What happened at the half in Chapel Hill? The competition got better, my beat-writer friend quipped, but then both of us agreed that the team simply didn't play as well after that. Were the twin blows to the Gamecocks' confidence, in a near-loss to woeful North Carolina and an upset at the hands of mediocre Vanderbilt, just too much?
Wait until next year? Yes, it seems hollow to appeal to next year again, and yet...
This is a young team. McKinley says he'll be back. LeCorn will be back. Smelley or SAVIOR OF THE PROGRAM Stephen Garcia will take over and can't do much worse than Blake. And Spurrier will be back, once he gets done coaching Texas A&M and LSU.
But Florida is also young. So is Georgia. Tennessee might be in decline some next year -- they basically won the SEC East by attrition this season -- and Kentucky and Vanderbilt will likely slump. Florida and Georgia, though, will be major obstacles.
Sagarin says South Carolina's schedule was the sixth most difficult in the nation, for whatever that's worth.
Is it any easier next year? N.C. State replaces the Tar Heels, UAB replaces Louisiana-Lafayette and Wofford takes S.C. State's spot. That's probably a bit more difficult for the nonconference, non-Clemson schedule; under the best-case scenario, it's a wash.
In the SEC, Mississippi replaces Mississippi State, while LSU, Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas all come to Columbia. Arkansas will be sans McFadden and maybe Jones, but the Bayou Bengals and the spelling-challenged Dawgs are still likely to be strong. And Tebow & Co. will be waiting in the Swamp.
As I walked out of Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday night, I passed a crumpled-up, hand-made poster meant to catch the attention of ESPN's cameras. "STEVE SPURRIER [HEARTS] AN EASY WIN OVER PATHETIC BOWDEN!!!"
It was a painful reminder of the dreams that had lived just a few moments earlier, as the Gamecocks took a narrow lead and seemed to maybe have exorcised some of the spirits that haunt the team.
It seemed to be taunting South Carolina fans. "Your dreams are in vain. Your hopes are a mirage." It seemed to be a condemnation of the future.
With luck, in a few years, it will be a symbol of a painful past, by then forgotten.
It won't be easy.
No one ever said it would be.