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South Carolina Gamecocks Football: 10 Best Openers in the Last Fifty Years, Pt. 2

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Continuing our two part series, we now look back at the top five season-openers in Carolina football history.

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back Carolina fans and friends from "off."  Please see Part 1 for ## 10-6 and our first four honorable mentions, along with the selection criteria.  Before we resume the countdown, however, here are four more honorable mentions of great USC season-openers in the past 50 years:

1971 - Georgia Tech.  Avenging our 1970 defeat at Bobby Dodd Stadium by ripping the Yellow Jackets 24-7 at W-B.

1997 - Central Florida.  A wild-and-woolly 33-31 win at Willy-B over UCF's tremendous QB Daunte Culpepper.

1988 - North Carolina.  We trounce Mack Brown's Heels 31-10 in Columbia in his first game as head coach of the other Carolina, and avenge the 1983 opener loss to UNC-CH in the process.

1969 - Duke.  Beating the hated Blue Devils at our house 27-20 en route to a 7-4 finish and an ACC Championship, for which the swells on Tobacco Road never forgave us.

So now that we go those out of the way, without further ado, here are ## 5-1:

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5.  September 1, 2005 - USC 24 Central Florida 15.

It was a miserably hot opening day even by Columbia standards. It was not a marquee opponent: George O'Leary's Golden Knights had gone 0-11 in 2004, his first season at the helm in Orlando.  To be honest, the game itself was not all that great, either.  The Gamecocks played so-so - taking a decent 17-3 lead into half time, but allowing UCF of the C-USA to outscore us 12-7 in the second half to tighten the contest up.  QB Blake Mitchell was the difference-maker for Carolina, passing for 330 yards and 3 TDs, but we never established any sort of run game - gaining a paltry 32 rushing yards.  The contest was never in doubt, but like so many USC openers it didn't feel as decisive a victory as it could have been or should have been.

The 2005 opener would probably be all but forgotten except for one small detail - it was Spurrier's first as USC's head coach.  ESPN's College Game Day crew had come down to Cola with great fanfare and set up their tent on the Fair Grounds.  The eyes of the whole nation were on us.   Not only was the hooplah surrounding the HBC's return to the collegiate ranks a tremendous publicity coup for Carolina, but it would go along way to erase the bitter taste left over from the 29-7 "Brawl Game" loss to Clemson the preceding November, which had cast a pall over Lou Holtz's last season on the USC sideline.

Building on the momentum from this 2005 opening win over Central Florida, we would drop a close 17-15 contest to UGA, but then proceed to knock off #25 Tennessee (16-15) and # 12 Florida (30-22) - our first win against the Gators since joining the SEC. True - we would lose a close one to Clemson (13-9) and squander a 28 point lead against Mizzou in the Independence Bowl, but a 7-5 finish (5-3 in conference) was not only a great start for Spurrier in his first season  - but the beginning of his hugely successful ten year [and counting] run at Carolina.

4.  August 28, 2008 - USC 34 North Carolina State 0.

With the HBC entering his fourth season in Columbia, however, things felt .. .well ... a little unsettled. After starting 2007 with a solid 6-1 record and reaching #6 in the AP Poll, we had lost five-in-a-row to finish 6-6, out of the rankings and home for the holidays.  USC needed a victory in a very bad way against Tom O'Brien's NC State Wolfpack.  O'Brien was in his second season with the Pack, which had gone 5-7 in 2007.  Both squads were hoping for a good start to 2008 and ESPN obliged with a nationally televised audience on its first Thursday night game of the season for this ACC-SEC matchup.

Going in, the Carolina faithful felt really good about our starting QB, Tommy Beecher.  If anything was a question mark, it was the defense under first year D.C. Ellis Johnson, who had replaced Tyrone Nix.  Unfortunately, Beecher had a poor outing, throwing 12-22 with 106 and four - yes, 4 - INTs through three quarters (two in the first period alone).  To be fair to Tommy, he was likely concussed by a hard hit from the Pack and off his game [hard hits were the order of the day, as future All-American RS Fr. Russell Wilson of the Pack had to be carted off the field having lain motionless on the turf for a few extremely frightening minutes].  Most teams will never survive four turnovers, but E.J.'s defense was up to the task... superbly denying State any points-off-turnovers.  At the half, we led by a mere 3-0 margin when we deserved to be losing by three or more scores.

There was a lot of reason to fret.  Coach Spurrier stuck with Beecher in the third quarter.  We capitalized on a Pack turn-over and Beecher did lead one scoring drive for a FG before throwing his fourth pick.  USC was holding onto to a 13-0 lead going into the 4th when, cool-as-a-cucumber, Chris Smelley came off the bench to lead us to three straight TD drives bang-bang-bang.  We had just smoked the Pack - a bitter foe from ACC days - plus avenged the 1999 loss at Raleigh played in a tropical storm.  We had also given the home-fans our first shut-out in a season-opener at Williams Brice since 2000 (see below) and our first over a major conference opponent since all the way back to '58 when we blanked Duke 9-0.

The good feelings would not last, of course - as you know doubt recall, we lost the next two games to Vanderbilt and Georgia, then later dropped a close battle to LSU (17-24) before getting (I) boat-raced by Florida (6-56); (II) spanked by Clemson (14-31);  and (III) humiliated by Iowa at the Outback Bowl (10-31). We finished 7-6 (4-4).  Beecher would never see significant action again and would transfer to Liberty, where he would light it up.   Smelley had huge ups and downs during the 2008 campaign, and transferred to Alabama where he played a little baseball for the Tide.  Not matter what, though, he can always look back to the State game with pride. More importantly, so can Ellis Johnson and the Gamecock defense.  The fearsome Gamecock D that has carried us these past six years had been re-born at the 2008 opener.

3.  September 2, 2000 - USC 31 New Mexico State 0.

It was arguably the darkest era in our program's history - a nation-leading 0-21 losing streak that had seen us go from the middle of the SEC pack to a laughingstock in CFB.  The blame lay entirely with Brad Scott, the ex-FSU offensive coordinator who had been lured to Carolina with much fanfare after the Seminoles won the 1993 national championship. Alas, Scott talked the talk but could never deliver. (Ed. - knowing what we know now, we should have offered the Noles' QB coach - Mark Richt, who clearly was the brains behind the FSU offense).  By 1999, the wheels had fallen off Fat Brad's clown car, and the Cocks finished a dismal 1-10.  Enter Lou Holtz.  Love him or hate him, Holtz revived Carolina Football when it was dead on the table.  But his first season wasn't pretty -  going 0-11 in '99, our worst-showing in a century of football.   Whatever meager advantage we had gained over Clemson by joining the SEC was completely squandered.  We were a punchline.  The 0-21 streak is still tied for the tenth-longest in NCAA Division I history.

Regardless, Carolina fans dutifully came out to the games anyway; that's what Gamecocks do even in the midst of terrible adversity.  As we made our way into Williams-Brice for the 2000 opener, we had no idea what to expect.  If I recall correctly, New Mexico State felt pretty confident about coming out with a win and the Aggies coach even said words to that effect.  For his part, Holtz had promised us that the Cocks would be better. He was right.  A few hours later, we were tearing down the goalposts having blasted the Aggies 31-0.

Looking back 14 years later, it's hard to remember the trepidation and angst with which we approached the 2000 opener.  As far as games go, it was nothing special - we clearly over-matched NMSU.  With the demise of Google News, it's hard to find a box score or remember the particulars, either.   But the important thing about the 2000 opener was that streak was over.  The Gamecocks would ride a glorious wave to an 8-4 finish (5-3 SEC) - including a big 21-10 win over # 10 Georgia (Ed. - thank you, Quincy Carter) and a brilliant Outback Bowl triumph over # 18 Ohio State - the first of two.  We had awoken from our self-induced coma.  We finished # 19 in the final AP poll.  We were back from the brink.

2.   September 8, 1984 - USC 31 The Citadel 24.

George Rogers won the Heisman Trophy in 1980 after an 8-3 campaign.  Unfortunately, the wheels came in 1981, when we finished 6-6 and the University fired head coach Jim Carlen just a few months after having awarded him a three year contract extension.   Carlen's long-time assistant, Richard Bell, was given the reins but we slipped even further (4-7) in 1982.  A.D. Bob Marcum then brought in CFB's biggest miracle worker, Joe "The Man in Black" Morrison to right the ship.  Simultaneously laconic and charismatic, Morrison only managed to hold the line at 5-6 in 1983.  It had been our third non-winning season in a row, highlighted only by the de-pantsing of Southern Cal 38-14 (but also handing us our fourth loss in a row to Clemson).

Going into 1984, the Carolina faithful were concerned.  The "Fire Ant" defense had gained some national respect in '83, but would we have the offense to compete with Georgia and Clemson, both only a few years removed from their NCAA championship runs?  Our first test would be The Citadel - once a perennial in-state foe from the 1920s to the 1940s, but in recent decades only an occasional, over-matched opponent to whom we had not lost since 1950.  How could we expect a big season if we couldn't bury the Bulldogs at Williams-Brice?   For 58 minutes, the question seemed to answer itself, as El Cid responded to every USC score and kicked a FG to knot the game at 24-24 with exactly 2:00 to go in the 4th.  Desperate, Morrison went to his trick bag and called a half-back pass with 1:12 to go.  USC's Quinton Lewis lofted a wobbly, 40 yard bomb to Chis Wade, who scampered into the end zone for the go-ahead score.   In true Carolina fashion, we made things interesting by allowing The Citadel to return the ensuing kick-off all the way to the USC 18!   As the Garnecock faithful watched in horror, the Bulldog QB lofted what would be a sure-TD pass with :22 left on the clock - only to be intercepted by USC's Otis Morris to seal the win!

It was like Black Magic - the name that would stick to our greatest season until the Steve Spurrier era.  We would go 10-2 and rise to number 2 in the AP Poll with huge, cardiac-inducing wins over Georgia, Notre Dame, K-State and Clemson with the QB platoon of Allen Mitchell and Mike Hold, and Joe Lee Dunn's Fire Ants.  Unfortunately, as you all know, Black Magic failed against Navy, denying us a chance to play for the National Championship.  Despite rebounding to beat Clemson in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion, 22-21, we fell to Oklahoma State in the Gator Bowl 21-14 to deny us an 11th win.  Still, it was a season to remember, and it all started with that first cardiac win in the 1984 opener.

1.  September 3, 1993 - USC 23  (#14) Georgia 21.

Starting at #14 in the AP Poll, UGA was the highest ranked opponent we had faced in a season-opener since playing # 11 UNC a decade earlier in '83. Coming off a 10-2 finish in 1992, the Silver Britches under head coach Ray Goff (a former Jim Carlen assistant at USC) were prohibitive favorites (+10.5) to whip Sparky Woods' Gamecocks.  For their part, the Cocks had gone 5-6 in 1992 - our first year in the SEC-  including a 6-28 home beat-down by the Dawgs.

The 5-6 record, however, failed to tell the whole tale of that fateful '92 season- including the 0-5 start and a "player revolt" against Woods where they voted to fire him (ignored) - and the Woods decision to hand the QB job to true freshman Steve Taneyhill of Altoona, Pennsylvania.  With his trademark mullet and brash ways, Taneyhill led the Cocks to a 5-1 finish with victories over # 15 Mississippi State, # 14 Tennessee and Clemson at Death Valley (where he famously "signed" his name on the Tiger Paw) - the only loss in that run coming in an agonizing 9-14 defeat at the Swamp which for many years was the closest we ever came to beating the Gators in Gainesville.

Honestly, it was crazy to think we could start 1993 with a win Between the Hedges.  Except that with Taneyhill under center it didn't seem all that crazy at the time.

It was an incredibly hot and muggy afternoon in North Georgia; a hard rain had soaked the masses at Sanford Stadium and the air was miasmic.  In those days, UGA allowed the visiting fans full rein over the west end zone stands (at the mouth of Sanford's iconic horseshoe), and the Carolinians screamed themselves hoarse as the Cocks managed to take a 10-7 lead into the half paced by a 41 yard TD pass from Taneyhill to Corey Bridges.

Needless to say, the natives were restless - especially after the Cocks scored another TD in the third to go up 17-7. Led by their captain, Jr. QB Eric Zeier, the Dawgs came roaring back in the 4th. Zeier directed two touchdowns drives in the final quarter to reclaim the lead at 21-17.  It looked like our luck had run out.

When we got the ball back after the second, back-breaking Georgia TD (scored in front of the USC fans), there was just enough time for a desperation drive.  Improbably but methodically, Taneyhill delivered just that - leading us down the field into the very teeth of the broiling, boiling, screaming Georgians.   With less than :30 seconds left on the clock, we were at the goal line and out of timeouts.  The play came in from the sideline - Power I. Brandon Bennett. Over the top.

A Greenville kid, Bennett had broken Jeff Grantz's single-game rushing record as a true freshman in 1991 after amassing a staggering 278 yards against East Tennessee.   A junior in '03, Bennett was an even more powerful, punishing runner who not only had great hands as a receiver but was also a stand-out kick and punt returner, as well.

Now, Bennett was the man for the moment.

He took the ball and dove.  It appeared that he had crossed the plane, but a UGA defender made a heads-up play and hauled him back into the pile;  the refs did not signal touchdown.  This was long before video review, so all we could do was try one last play as the seconds ticked away.

Taneyhill remembers it was "[j]ust unbelievable how loud it was down there. Just trying to pick everybody up and just hollering, 'Same play! Same play!'"

Bennett recalls "Everybody was like, 'Just run the same play!' and we're running around frantic because of the time. We tried to get everybody up so we could get the play because time was running out. It was something I didn't have time to think about at the time."

The Georgians knew it was another run up the middle.  Everyone in Sanford Stadium knew it.  It was man against man.  It was a test of will.  UGA stacked all 11 up on the line.  It was deafening - so loud that it seemed like the air was shaking.  The Carolina fans amassed in the opposite end zone could barely see the action.  Time stood still.  Taneyhill took the snap.  There was a clash of white and red jerseys; black and silver pants; garnet and red helmets.

Then in one shining, unbelievable moment, a white jersey went flying and twisting over the pile. Bennett would not be denied.

Touchdown!

U-S-C!  U-S-C! came the delirious chant as the Georgians looked on in disbelief.   Some Carolina fans were crying. Some UGA fans were spitting every imprecation in the lexicon.

Woods elected to take a knee on the PAT rather than risk a potential block-and-return.  There were :02 seconds left and the Dawgs got nothing on the kick off return as time expired.

U-S-C!  U-S-C! came the chant as the furious Georgia fans filed out.

We had won 23-21.

Twenty-one years later, it still never gets old:


(If you don't recognize the announcers, the first is Georgia's immortal Larry Munson (1922-2011) and the second is South Carolina's much-beloved Bob Fulton (1921-2010) - two legendary play-by-play men who were both at the top of their craft on this call.  Along with Clemson's Jim Phillips (1934-2003), their voices ruled the autumn airwaves of the Palmetto State for decades; all three are sorely missed.  The man shouting "yes, yes, yes, yes!" is of course our own Tommy Suggs, who in 2014 is entering his 41st season as the USC radio network's color commentator; not only did he create the "2001" entrance at Williams-Brice, he was the first USC QB to beat Clemson three straight years ['68-'70].)

We never accomplished much more in 1993.  We finished 4-7 (2-6) with close-but-no-cigar losses to Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas and Clemson, and shellackings by Mississippi State, Florida and Tennessee.   Woods would be fired at the end of the season.  The nucleus of the '93 squad would finish 7-5 under Brad Scott in '94 (beating Clemson 33-7, and winning the Carquest Bowl over West Virginia).

Georgia would finish a disappointing 5-6 in '93.  Goff would last one more season before he would be replaced. UGA did avenge the loss by beating USC 24-21 in 1994 and going on to win 5 of the next 6.  Whether the 1993 game was the first in a series of dominoes the cost Goff his job we will never know.

Most USC fans at the game never heard Munson's iconic call (Lay down you guys! ... 14 ...13 ... 12 ... Lay down!) - with audio being circulated later.

In the great scheme of things, the 1993 opener shouldn't mean much with both teams ending up with losing seasons and lowly [4th place (UGA) and t-5th place (USC)] finishes in the East. But to Carolina fans, that day in Athens will be forever enshrined in our hearts because it felt like it was the game that truly put us in the SEC.  To the adherents of the Garnet and Black, five little words will always summon up the good feelings:

Brandon Bennett over the top.

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