This post continues a week-long series celebrating fandom with EA Sports.
I'm assuming that most folks that have been following the Gamecocks longer than I have would choose the 2000 or 2001 seasons as their favorite team, with some picking 2000 because it marked the Gamecocks' return from the dead and some 2001 because it was a little bit stronger season that included a win over Clemson. These were great seasons for Gamecocks fans, and they're the last seasons that Carolina finished nationally ranked.
For me, though, these seasons are prehistory--while I remember watching some of these games (notably the infamous 2001 Florida game), I didn't do so as a Carolina fan. For me, Carolina fandom begins in 2005, and that's still my favorite Carolina team. 2006 and 2009 were also a lot of fun, but 2005 takes the cake for me.
The reasons for loving this season should be obvious. On a statistical, Ws-and-Ls level, it's in fact the best season we've had in the SEC. One of only three years that we've finished with a +.500 mark in the conference, it's also the only year that we've finished second in the Eastern Division. We in fact came really, really close to doing what a lot of our rivals say will never happen: actually winning the East and gaining a spot in the SEC Championship Game. If a couple of plays had gone the other way in the Georgia game (isn't that always the story?), it would have been us taking on LSU with a title and spot in the Sugar Bowl on the line.
A lot of what made that season memorable, though, was the feeling that surrounding it, the aura. A lot of energy, first of all, was produced when Steve Spurrier took the job. However, even with Spurrier at the helm, most pundits expected Carolina to finish with a losing record, and Carolina fans were advised to temper their expectations that Spurrier would bring the magic to Columbia. Carolina fans being what they are, though, a lot of folks were still hoping for big things. As an initiate that year, I'll have to admit that I wasn't part of this camp. I expected Spurrier to face a big rebuilding challenge coaching a depleted roster against a stout SEC schedule that, like the upcoming season, not only included the usual Eastern Division slate but also traditional Western powers Alabama and Auburn.
The early part of the season confirmed the more conservative progostications. After nearly pulling off an unlikely upset against the Dawgs, Carolina proceeded to get slaughtered by Alabama and Auburn, the latter an ugly 48-7 stomping at Jordan-Hare. Prospects looked bleak at that point, as Lee Corso and his ilk rightly wondered if Spurrier's team had what it took to hang with high-quality SEC competition.
What happened after that, though, was nothing short of remarkable, as the Gamecocks beat the odds and strung together five straight SEC wins. The Gamecocks started by reeling some wins against Troy, Vandy, and Kentucky. But the real fun started on Halloween weekend, when Spurrier engineered an unlikely, dramatic win over Tennessee, the program's first since the mid-90s. I enjoyed watching that game at a costume party and definitely got swept up in the excitement. I was also introduced to my fiancee later that evening, so the night was auspicious in more ways than one. The Gamecocks followed that with another close win, this time over Arkansas. Then came the cherry on top: a 30-22 home victory against Florida, a team that the Gamecocks hadn't beaten since the 1930s and had only rarely kept it close against since joining the SEC. We were all convinced that Spurrier really did still have the magic then; who can forget seeing us on the front page of ESPN.com or the parties that ensued post-game?
The feeling after that season, even with the disappointing losses to Clemson and Missouri, was extremely positive. Spurrier had managed to win with a sparse roster in 2005, and everyone believed that, after he had a couple of recruiting classes under his belt, he would soon have us in the SEC Title Game. Things haven't worked out that way, of course, but I still think that there's a chance they will, and for me at least, if Spurrier does take us there, it will fulfill the promise that that 2005 season set up.