The votes are in, and we've chosen the 1984 Navy loss as the greatest disaster in South Carolina history. The top five were, in order, Navy; Marcus Lattimore's second injury; Brad Scott and the 1998 and 1999 seasons; losing the "SC" trademark to Southern Cal; and a tie between the 1970 hoops loss in the ACC tournament and the death of Joe Morrison.
I myself voted for Navy, and while the brutal nature of this loss probably doesn't need to be recounted to Gamecocks fans, I'll go ahead say a few words about why it stands out to me among many other disasters and tragedies. The loss, of course, cost us a chance at a national championship. Carolina was ranked second in the nation at the time, and the Orange Bowl had contacted the program regarding the opportunity to play Nebraska or Oklahoma in a national title showdown, should the Gamecocks get past Navy and Clemson. Oklahoma would beat top-ranked Nebraska on the same day Carolina lost to Navy, meaning that Carolina would have gone into the Clemson game with our first-ever number one ranking if we had beaten Navy. The final game against Oklahoma, of course, would have been a tough one, but when it played well, the 1984 Carolina team could have beaten the Sooners. We beat an excellent Florida St. team that year, not to mention Georgia, Notre Dame, Clemson, and some other good teams. The Sooners were good, but they weren't dominant, finishing the regular season with a tie and a loss on their record and in fact losing to Washington in the Orange Bowl, allowing BYU to win a surprising national title. Anything could have happened against Oklahoma. 1984 was one of those years, kind of like 2007, when there wasn't a truly dominant team, so don't think that just because we lost to Navy we couldn't have competed in a national title game. We could have filled the void of great teams and taken home a title.
What makes the loss particularly gruesome, of course, is that it came against a team we had no business losing to. Navy went 4-6-1 in 1984. They came into their game against us having been blown out by Syracuse the week before, and they were without their star running back. Carolina was riding high after beating the 'Noles, and it seems we simply lost our nerve. Carolina great Brad Edwards, who was a freshman in 1984 and would wrap up his career at Carolina in 1987 with a memorable pick-six against a highly ranked Clemson team, said, "I remember Thursday night thinking we were not ready...I had a sense that we were looking ahead to the Clemson game and the Orange Bowl." It was a classic case of getting caught looking ahead and losing your chance at the big prize before you got the chance.
Some of our discussion of the eligible disasters hinged on whether a single loss in an otherwise great season should be considered a worse disaster than decisions, such as the Brad Scott hire, that put us back many years. That's a fair question, but should this loss be considered an event that had no future repercussions? You have to remember that although there were a couple of bad years thrown in, the Morrison tenure and the 1980s overall were, up to that point, the heyday of Carolina football. We had several good teams, highlighted by the 1984 unit. We had a Heisman winner. What we didn't have was a championship to top it all off, and that may be what made this simply an isolated period of solid play for Carolina as opposed to a turning point in the program's history. Not winning a title during the 1980s was partly a product of being an independent at the time; the 1984 team was good enough to win any conference title, and other teams might have won ACC titles had we still been in the conference. As an independent, though, our only chance was for a national title, and we blew our one opportunity. Had we made good, we would have been viewed as a national power while replacing Morrison and might have drawn a bigger name coach to lead us into the SEC. That would have helped us begin our period in the conference with both good coaching and the street cred that comes with a national title in a program's history, which might have turned the tide with many notable recruits who turned us down for more decorated suitors. A national title would have meant a lot for this program's image and might have put us in a position to get back to double-digit wins much sooner than we actually did. That's the ultimate reason why the Navy loss was such a huge disaster for the program. We stood to gain so much by beating a mediocre program, and we blew it.