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South Carolina Gamecocks Football: 10 Best Openers in the Last Fifty Years, Pt. 1

Just a week away from our historic home opener with Texas A&M and the first game broadcast of the SEC Network, it's a good time to scan the last five decades, from 1964 to the present, and list Gamecock Football's ten best opening games. In Part 1, we will look at games ## 10-6 on our countdown, and also list the four honorable mentions that just missed our cut.

Streeter Lecka

Before we get started, a word about our criteria.  Why fifty years?  It's a bit arbitrary but it is a round number and close  to 1961 (the hiring of Marvin Bass from Georgia Tech) which I date as the beginning of the modern era of Carolina football.  I have not restricted us to home openers.  While the margin of victory was considered, the biggest factor for me was "how important" the game was to the program, followed by how exciting the outcome/opponent.  Let me know if you think I got it right.

10.  September 2, 2010 - USC 41 Southern Miss 13.

The lead-up to the 2010 season had been brutal.  We had finished 2009 with a mediocre 7-6 record and a humiliating loss to UConn in the Papa John's Bowl, 20-7.   We were supposed to start 2010 with a marquee contest against UNC (the return to our 2007 trip to Chapel Hill), but ESPN intervened to match the Heels with LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff; helpfully, the WWL arranged for USM to be the substitute, offering to televise our game on the Thursday night national slot as a sweetener. If all that wasn't bad enough, then USM's head coach Larry Fedora was telling Golden Eagle fans over the summer that Southern Miss would win the game (which Fedora tried to walk back later).  Well, Stephen Garcia and Alshon Jeffery had something to say about that - in front of a raucous home crowd - along with true freshmen Connor Shaw and FR Marcus Lattimore who were seeing their first collegiate action.

It was 24-6 at the half and 41-6 early in the 4th, with USM scoring their only TD in trash time.  Garcia went 16-23 and 193 yards and 2 rushing TDs.  Lattimore also rushed for 2 TDs and Shaw threw his first TD pass.  Afterward, we entered the AP poll at # 24 and have stayed in the AP Top 25 since that date.  Not only did this game mark the beginning of our great 33-6 run, but would set the stage for the seminal 17-6 win over UGA the next week.  Best of all, we easily took care of business and saw the debut of two of the most beloved Gamecocks ever - Lattimore and Shaw.

9. September 16, 1967 -  USC 34 Iowa State 3.

Paul Dietzel had been hired for the 1966 season to replace the hapless Marvin Bass.   Dietzel had pioneered an innovative three-platoon system en route to winning the '58 national championship at LSU before next accepting the Army job.  As so often was the case for USC when transitioning into a new coaching staff, Dietzel's first campaign in '66 had beena disastrous: 1-9, with double-digit losses to Tennessee, LSU, Maryland, FSU, Alabama and Clemson (at least no one could accuse u of soft-scheduling).  It was imperative that "Pepsodent Paul" turn it around in 1967 and first up on our plate - after changing our fight song, that is - were the Iowa State Cyclones.  It was a evenly-matched Big8-ACC tilt; the Cyclones' had gone 2-6-2 under 10th year head coach Clay Stapleton - a disciple of Col. Neyland and a single-wing proponent known for punting on 3rd down.

With two minutes left in the first half, ISU was leading 3-0.  Then USC's QB Mike Fair of Raleigh came alive and led us on 71 yard TD drive - scoring on a QB keeper with :07 on the clock to take the 7-3 lead into the lockeroom.  If Iowa State expected to answer in the second half, they were sorely mistaken.  Army transfer FB Warren Muir ran the Cyclones out of the Fair Grounds with two rushing TDs.  Riding Muir's coattails, USC scoring 27 more unanswered points to rout the Cyclones (Muir would go on to pile up 2,234 yards over the next three seasons). USC would finish 1967 with a 5-5 mark - along the way getting walloped by Frank Howard's Clemson and shut out by Vince Dooley's UGA, Bear Bryant's Bama and Bill Peterson's FSU.  Still, our only meeting ever with Iowa State can be considered a foundational win that would ultimately propel us two years later to our 1969 ACC Championship.   Maybe we ought to schedule a return game to Ames.

8.  September 13, 1975 - USC 23 Georgia Tech 13.

Georgia Tech had been an independent since leaving the SEC in '64.  In 1970, the Gameoocks and Yellow Jackets renewed their series from the old SoCon days (which had been dominated by Tech) - right before USC exited the ACC in 1971. For nine years, these two Southern Independents had a great rivalry going which was always played early in the season - five times as the opener for each school.  By '75, the home team had won each time; Carolina had to hold serve at Williams-Brice against the Rambin' Wreck led by the legendary Pepper Rodgers (the HBC's coaching mentor) in his second season on North Avenue.  USC was coached by Jim Carlen, hired away from Texas Tech to replace Dietzel, who had offered his resignation in '74 (having gone 4-7 in his last season).  The talented but brash, often-combative Carlen had an uphill struggle against Tech out of the gate. Rodgers, who had enjoyed some success at UCLA, had returned to coach his alma mater to a respectable 6-5 record in '74.

Although the Yellow Jackets were favored, USC had senior QB Jeff Grantz of Bel Air, Maryland - who had started every game his first three seasons under Dietzel.  A threat to pass or run (sound familiar?), Carolina landed Grantz because we were the only school to offer him a full scholarship in either baseball or football - and to let him choose one or both.  The late Bob Fulton, Voice of the Gamecocks, called him "the best athlete that Carolina's ever seen."   True to form, Grantz put the Cocks on his back and accounted for all three of our TDs against the Jackets - two in the air and one rushing.  Grantz would earn second team All-America honors and end the season first in NCAA for total TDs in 1975 (128) and in the top 10 in all passing statistics.  For their part, the Jackets would finish 7-4 (including a loss to Notre Dame immortalized in the film Rudy).

Carlen's Gamecocks would go 7-5 - including one of our biggest wins ever against Clemson (56-20) - but ultimately capped-off by a disappointing Tangerine Bowl loss to Miami of Ohio (20-7).  The '75 opener not only marked the first of three straight victories against Tech, but re-established Carlen's bona fides in the southeast - amid rivals like Bear Bryant, Vince Dooley and Pepper Rodgers to name a few. In a few short years, Carlen would build off the '75 campaign to sign future Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers to Carolina.  Grantz would be drafted by the Miami Dolphins but would leave the squad after rookie camp; he returned to Columbia as a GA for Coach Carlen before getting into business; he was named the QB for the Gamecocks' All-Century team in 1992.

7.   September 2, 1989 - USC 27  Duke 21.

1988 had been the Annus Horribulus of Gamecock Football.  The Tommy Chaikin steroid scandal had derailed a promising season in which the Cocks had reached #6 in the AP Poll right before Sports Illustrated broke "The Nightmare of Steroids" in October [in which Chaikin implicated the USC coaching staff with knowledge that half the squad was taking steroids (though that claim that half the Cocks were juicing was never substantiated)].  The team limped to an 8-4 finish, including blow out losses to Georgia Tech (34-0), FSU (59-0), Clemson (29-10) and finally to Indiana at the Liberty Bowl (34-10).   A highly touted recruiting class evaporated.  Athletic Director Bob Marcum and the team physician were fired.  A federal grand jury convened to indict four USC assistant coaches. While the investigation was ongoing, Head coach Joe Morrison died in February, 1989 from a heart condition. Suffice it to say, recrimination, remorse and anger ruled the day.

Carolina's new A.D., former football hero King Dixon, hired Sparky Woods, a super-clean and very successful young coach from I-AA Appalachian State to take over our embattled program and rebuild the shattered Gamecock brand.  His first test on the young 1989 season was hosting Steve Spurrier's Duke Blue Devils.  Coach Spurrier boasted an impressive team that would go on to win the ACC Championship.  Certainly, the brash, young Spurrier would not have hesitated a moment to lay the wood to South Carolina had he had the chance, and the Blue Devils came to Wiliams-Brice believing they would win.

But the Gamecocks had RB Harold Greene, QB Todd Ellis and K Colin Mackie, and were playing in front of the largest USC crowd ever to that point - 74,232.  The faithful who rallied to the team were treated to a 42 yard TD scamper by Greene on the opening drive and Carolina would never surrender the lead, with Mackie kicking a FG to surpass the all-time Gamecock scoring record of 202 set by George Rogers.  Spurrier's Blue Devils would go on to lose tough games to Tennessee and Alabama before romping their way to the 1989 ACC championship with a big win over UNC (and the immortal "picture" of the Duke team in front of the Keenan Stadium endzone scoreboard).   Carolina would go on to whip Tech and # 12 Georgia, but be clobbered by West Virginia, FSU, and Clemson, to end 6-4-1.   Beating Duke was the difference between a winning season and 5-5-1.  It helped heal the open wound of 1988.  It also marked the only time in Spurrier's career that he ever lost an opener - including his stints in the USFL and NFL.

6.   August 30, 2012 - USC 17  Vanderbilt 13.

Only two years ago, this game hardly needs an introduction.  If you are like me, the words the best describe the 2012 opener are "joyless," "painful" and "irritating."   A lot was riding on the game.  At #9, it was the highest we had ever started a season in our 110 year history, and while we were proud of the ranking, we know a loss would derail any hope to capture the East crown.  Vandy's James Franklin had spent his entire August camp planning for the Cocks and it showed when the 'Dores came out chippy and fired up on a muggy night in Nashville, with the Vandy faithful dressed in all black and whipped into a frenzy by constant video board admonitions to Anchorrrrrr Downnnnnnn.  In his return from his first season-ending injury (against Mississippi State in October, 2011), Marcus Lattimore looked a little tentative but was good enough to rush for 112 yards and 2 TDs.  The critical injury was to Connor Shaw, who - while defenseless on the ground after a running play - was viciously kneed in the back, resulting in a fracture to his scapula.   Unlike his other times off the bench, Dylan Thompson was shaky in relief and the Cocks would finish with a mere 67 yards passing - total.

We blew an early 10 point lead and let the 'Dores knot it up 10-10 at the half.   Fortunately the defense came to the rescue - especially D.J. Swearinger who appeared to get away with a blatant hold against VU's Jordan Matthews to prevent what might have been a game-winning TD (that's the way the cookie crumbles sometimes and perhaps was justice for the no-call on the late hit on Shaw that knocked him out of the game).   Why is this game included in the face of so much angst and frustration?  Two reasons.  One, it started us on a six game win-streak highlighted by our first-ever blow-out win over # 5 UGA (35-7) in the modern era and an11-2 season.  Second, and more importantly, it was the kind of trap game / street brawl the Gamecocks might have lost in the past.  We were hit in the mouth, but we survived to post our second-best season in school history.  (Note: Carolina was the only SEC East team never to lose to James Franklin in his three seasons at Vanderbilt).

Honorable Mentions:

2006 - Mississippi State.   A 15-0 shut-out at Starkville.

2001 - Boise State.  Funny, in their heyday the Broncos never talked about this 32-13 loss at USC.

1980 - Pacific. George Rogers romped in this 37-0 shut-out at Williams-Brice.

2008 - a 7-3 fistfight-win over NC State at Raleigh; we got away with an illegal hit on a sure State TD.


Stay tuned for Go to Part 2 for ## 5-1.


UPDATE:  A few corrections to the original post.  In # 9, I originally gave FB Warren Muir's name as Fred and gave the incorrect year for Coach Dietzel's championship at LSU - it was in 1958 not 1955.   In # 7, I had written that coach Joe Morrison was fired before his death, but that was also incorrect.  In addition to these  corrections (thank you to those who pointed them out), I have tried to tighten up the piece by fixing a few other typos and adding some more paragraph breaks.  Please tell me if you see any other errors or omissions.