UP IN SMOKE: The Rise and Fall of the 2007 Gamecocks, Part I


As I stood, numb but not surprised, in the upper deck of Williams-Brice Stadium, far behind the Gamecocks bench, I could see Tommy Bowden jump into the air, part of a jubilant celebration of Clemson's 23-21 win that capped off a stunning collapse.

After all, these were the same Gamecocks that had reeled off a 6-1, with the only loss to eventual national champion LSU ... weren't they? This was the same team that had flirted with the Top 5 before an upset at Vanderbilt ... wasn't it? This was the same coach whose teams at South Carolina had regularly gotten better in the second half of the season for his first two years ... wasn't he?

And now, it had come to this. South Carolina was "bowl-eligible," but there was no real suspense over whether the Gamecocks would be playing in the postseason. They would be sitting at home in December, watching 64 teams deemed more deserving of a bowl slot than they were.

This is the story of how a team that seemed destined to take South Carolina to new heights fell apart. This is a story about how that team's quality turned out to be overrated, how its ability to win turned out to be a mirage.

This is the story of how a program poised to begin a winning tradition learned how to lose again.

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It began auspiciously enough. Steve Spurrier, a man who knows a thing or two about winning SEC championships, had declared his team ready to compete for the title. It was not, as many later misinterpreted it in their zeal to show "Steve Spurrier was wrong," a prediction of victory.

And, at the time, the promise of competing didn't seem far-fetched. There were legitimate questions about just how good QB Tim Tebow would be as a starter, a series of questions about eventual SEC East winner Tennessee, and the real possibility that youth would sink Georgia's hopes. Think back to the half point of the season, and there was no reason to doubt these assumptions.

In short, the East was wide open. If South Carolina or Kentucky couldn't seize the division now, when could they?

Sure, the media voters had returned the 'Cocks and the 'Cats to their usual preseason positions, 4th and 5th respectively. But both teams' fans had reasons to think, to at least imagine that this season might be different. Few honestly clung to a heartfelt belief that their coach would be hoisting the hardware in Atlanta in early December, but a lucky bounce here and there and ...

Preseaons are for dreams, and Week 1 is for fear. And for Gamecock fans, there was plenty of both.

After all, a well-regarded South Carolina team was expected to coast in the season opener against Louisiana Lafayette. Certainly, despite the trouble the Ragin' Cajuns had presented to the Gamecocks before, Steve Spurrier would find a way to dial up one of those blowout victories over a lightweight opponent that helped make him infamous at Florida, right?

What followed was instead a harrowing nail-biter that ended with South Carolina on top, 28-14. And the score didn't indicate how close the game was. Louisiana Lafayette piled up 252 yards rushing. The Cajuns twice came up empty in the red zone. The game was tied 14-14 until the waning seconds of the first half. Three Cajuns had averaged 5.5 or more yards per carry on the ground.

There were reasons not to overreact, but at the same time the game was cause for concern. Though Steve Spurrier felt confident enough to point out that there were worse performances against even worse teams in Week 1: "We're not quite like Michigan, now," he said. "We still won the game."

And the real test was about to come. It was time to head to Athens for the SEC opener.

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The annual tilt with Georgia has become the game I love to hate. It's always a nerve-splintering affair with some disgusting twist at the end that snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. The first edition of the Spurrier Era included two missed kicks and an overthrown pass to a wide-open man on the game-tying two-point conversion that cost South Carolina the game and a chance at the SEC title. Head Ball Coach's second year brought the second shutout of his career, an 18-0 blanking at home.

So it was only a rare chance to see an intriguing intersectional matchup live that kept me from watching the Gamecocks against the spelling-challenged Dawgs. As I watched the scores that showed the Gamecocks ahead appear on the screens at the Big House, I assumed this was the usual Georgia game: A flash of hope, followed by disappointment.

But after the drive back to my hotel in Hillsdale, I turned on ESPN and there it was: the final minutes of a win over Georgia. And while nothing was guaranteed, it was not without reason that I wrote: "history says the Gamecocks are pretty good when they beat Georgia." At that point, it did.


Blake was so happy, he could have danced.


Sure, the game had featured just one offensive TD, by South Carolina with 3:25 to go in the first quarter. Sure, the Gamecocks had been outgained 341-314. Sure, they were just 1-of-11 on third down.

But they had held Georgia -- Georgia -- to 128 yards rushing. And did I mention they won the game? Well, they won the game.

Yes, it was a heady day. The win wasn't pretty, but it didn't have to be. At the end of the year, it would be counted like all the other wins.

And could it be that South Carolina had a tiebreaker just in case it came to that to decide who would win the ...

Nah. Still too early to even think about that.

-----

Next up was S.C. State, a game that had all the potential to be a discouraging win. After all, that was what the Gamecocks did even when they were good, right? Win a close game when it should be a blowout?

The score at the end of the game was 38-3. But it felt much worse. Even without the benefit of having watched the game, I was able to offer what I still believe to be a pretty pithy summation of what happened: "that sucked."

S.C. State ran for 196 yards. They held the ball for more than 33 minutes. Blake Mitchell and Tommy Beecher combined for four interceptions. The Gamecocks were assisted mightily by the Bulldogs' astonishing 14 penalties for 98 yards.

The only bright spot came in the rushing performances of Cory Boyd and Mike Davis, who rang up 234 yards between them.

I was enough to make a Gamecock fan wonder: "Was Georgia just a mirage?"

Nathan Pepper was hurt. We would later learn that Jasper Brinkley was in no condition to play.

But South Carolina was 3-0, headed to the Bayou for a game against LSU that would mark a meeting of Top 15 teams. Everything that could have been accomplished, at least when it came to the only statistic that mattered, had been accomplished. South Carolina had defeated every team on its schedule.

So what kind of a season would it be?

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