Two 11-win seasons. Two top-ten finishes. Two NYD-bowl victories. Two rollercoasters. South Carolina's 2011 and 2012 seasons share a lot in common, ranking as the two best seasons in school history. But which was better?
As far as the traditional rankings are concerned, the 2012 team finished eighth in the AP poll and seventh in the coaches' poll (keep in mind that Ohio St. wasn't eligible for the coaches' poll in 2012), whereas the 2011 team finished ninth and eighth (again, keep in mind that Southern Cal wasn't eligible for the coaches' poll in 2011). The FEI rankings, which use advanced metrics to achieve an "objective" ranking, are a little bit harder on Carolina, ranking the 2012 team 11th and the 2011 team 13th. The traditional polls seem to suggest, though, that the 2012 team was a slight improvement on 2011. Of course, those results could reflect as much on the rest of the nation as they do on us; perhaps 2011 was a stronger year all around, which would seem to mesh with the chaotic nature of the 2012 season, when most of the top teams had trouble maintaining any kind of consistency over the course of the season.
Still, I tend to believe that the 2012 Carolina team was, indeed, the better of the two. First of all, the 2012 team got to 11 wins while playing a tougher schedule. The 2011 team played one elite team all year, when it was beaten handily by Arkansas. It also had wins over what I would describe as middlingly good Georgia, Clemson, and Nebraska teams. The 2012 team, on the other hand, got to 11 wins with four elite to at least very good teams on the schedule. It beat one of them, a thoroughly impressive dismantling of a Georgia team that could have easily won the national title if things had gone slightly different in the SECCG. It lost games to LSU and UF, and beat Clemson. If you're wondering why I'm putting Clemson up here, it's because I do think they were a very solid team in 2012, better than the 2011 version. Granted, FEI hated them because of their weak schedule relative to a respectable finish in the traditional polls, but they held up much better in the second half of the year in 2012 than they did in 2011, and they did get a legitimate win of consequence over LSU in 2012. USC still handled them fairly well, on the road this time around. USC also got solid wins over Vandy (this win aged very well over the course of the season) and Michigan in 2012. The other thing I really like about 2012 versus 2011 is that our two losses in 2012 came to legitimately good teams, and during a tough road stretch, at that. While you would want to have won those games, obviously, it's still possible to put a positive spin on the way they went down. That's not the case with the Auburn loss last year, which showed that the team was spiraling with Garcia at the helm. Things got better in the latter half of the year, but that loss to a mediocre Tigers squad is a real black mark on the season.
While the 2012 team seems like it was probably the better team, I would also say that the experience of 2011 was somewhat more fulfilling, at least to me, personally. The 2011 team didn't have to be a great team to get to 11 wins due to the schedule, but it did have to fight through a lot of adversity, adversity that many prior Carolina teams would have folded under, easy schedule or not. There was something very cathartic about seeing the team fight through a controversy, have an injury to its star running back and continue winning games with a former fifth-string freshman and another guy who hadn't started played regularly since 2009, and then beat down our rival, whose had thought all year that they were going to take the rivalry back. The 2012 team experienced adversity, too, but not quite on the same level.
Which season did you prefer?