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UP IN SMOKE: The Rise and Fall of the 2007 Gamecocks -- Part III

One of the emblematic games of the Lou Holtz era came against Georgia in 2004. South Carolina took a 16-0 lead on the spelling-challenged Dawgs, who were ranked No. 3 in the country at that point.

But Holtz decided to play the game conservatively. Way too conservatively. QB Dondrial Pinkins would end up running the ball 16 times, many of them draws, and Georgia fought its way back to the win, a 20-16 victory that included a scoreless second half by the Gamecocks.

When Spurrier came along, the idea was that he

Never, thought Gamecock fans, would Spurrier be comfortable enough with a lead.

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That was still the thinking as South Carolina headed to Chapel Hill after almost wiping out Kentucky's SEC East hopes and taking control of the division. A long rest and a team that wasn't yet ready to compete against high-caliber BCS teams, Butch Davis or no Butch Davis.

The mission was simply: win by 14-21, send a message that South Carolina had arrived, and then return to SEC play with a win over Vanderbilt. That would send a 7-1 South Carolina team into Knoxville with a chance to make the Florida matchup a de facto SEC East title game.

The first half? So far, so good. The real Carolina went up 21-3 and could coast through the second half, add a couple of TDs and begin to really dream about Atlanta.

Only that didn't happen.

Instead, "the second half was an unmitigated disaster." North Carolina scored 12 points. South Carolina scored none. The 21-15 victory was preserved only when offensive players brought in for an emergency situation swatted down a Hail Mary that would have given the Tar Heels a tie with a chance for the game-winning extra point.

The drive chart told the story: Steve Spurrier had become Lou Holtz.

---THIRD QUARTER---
(1st drive) Rush, rush, incomplete pass, incomplete pass, pass, punt
(2nd drive) Rush, rush, rush, punt
(3rd drive) Rush, rush, rush, punt
---FOURTH QUARTER---
(4th drive) Sack, incomplete pass, sack, punt
(5th drive) Pass, rush, interception
(6th drive) Rush, rush, rush, punt
(7th drive) Rush, rush, screen, punt


Now, now, let's not do anything foolish and lose the game.


For fans who were looking for it, this was a reason to panic. If the Gamecocks were really Top 10 material, they should have easily defeated North Carolina, not win a thriller on a great defensive play.

But Vanderbilt was next. Sure, the Commodores could cause some heart palpitations, but they always lost. They never actually got the upset.

Right?

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Perhaps we should have seen it coming when Spurrier announced that Blake Mitchell would be back. Of course, his role seemed to be minimal. In fact, it seemed prefaced on the idea that the Gamecocks would get up on Vanderbilt early, have a little cushion and put in Blake as a reward for being a good soldier.

But something was still troubling about the Vanderbilt game. They had come so close so many times. Weren't they going to beat somebody one of these days? Or was it just caution, an aversion to jinxing the Gamecocks, that made me write:

They scare me as a South Carolina fan, but they're the team always falls short. I hope they do the same Saturday, but they're going to bite somebody eventually.


Nah. It was Vanderbilt -- a game so certain to be a win, it wasn't even televised.

And then came the horror. The sinking feeling as the ticker at the bottom of the screen became more and more dire, with South Carolina down 17-0, then 17-6 and time running down.

Ah, they were just working on our hearts again, right? They were a better team than Vanderbilt, right? This was going to turn out okay, right?

Not so much.

Spurrier's thoughts on the disaster?

"I'm not shocked at losing to Vandy. They're a good team. They were obviously a lot better than us today. ... This should not be a shock to our team. This should not be a shock. Hopefully it will straighten them out. They sure did lose to a great team."


He was turning into Lou Holtz.

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As a sucker for tradition who's also a Gamecock fan, the Orange Crush leaves me feeling conflicted. I will fight to the death for Georgia to remain the second game of the season and the SEC opener -- though we somtimes blow that off -- but I don't like playing Tennessee, Florida, (Arkansas) and C****** in a row. Granted, South Carolina doesn't have a lot of SEC traditions, so it shouldn't be quick to shed any of them. But how many years had a brutal finish to the season crushed dreams of glory, or at least bowl eligibility?

As they headed to Knoxville, the Gamecocks has not scored a TD in six consecutive quarters. This was, of course, the result of the conservative play in the North Carolina game and the upset at the hands of Vanderbilt. Nothing alarming there.

And then it continued against Tennessee. For two more quarters.

Finally, the points came. And they came in a hurry. South Carolina reeled off 24 unanswered, but Tennessee managed to get the game into overtime. And what happened next drew the sympathy of even impartial fans.

I don't care who wins, but endings like this one almost make me sick for the utter randomness of it all. It's one thing to lose a game in which you outgain your opponent by 200 yards, hold the ball for almost an entire quarter longer and earn twice as many first downs - Carolina did, after all, turn the ball over four times, and that's what happens to a team that turns the ball over four times no matter what other good it does. But to lose because one of your opponent's linemen flinched before its kicker badly missed a field goal in overtime and nobody happened to break any rules when your kicker missed...that's the kind of ending that would drive me insane if I was Steve Spurrier.


And yet that's exactly what happened. Their kicker, of course, made the second attempt, putting the Vols up 27-24. When Succop missed, the game was over.

SEC hopes were fading fast. Not only that, but a previously unthinkable question was beginning to bubble up: Would the Gamecocks even get to a bowl? It was becoming increasingly clear that seven wins wouldn't get you into the postseason in the SEC. The remaining games were against Florida, Arkansas and C******. Florida was back, Arkansas was learning to win again and C****** was good enough to win.

Was another victory even there?