Well. That was something, wasn't it?
As I've tried to dig out of the haze of Thursday night's epic beatdown at the hands of Texas A&M -- let's call it what it was, because that helps with the healing process -- I've been plagued by the same question that a lot of Gamecock fans are probably asking themselves this morning. So, is that it? Are the possible hopes for the 2014 season already shattered after one game?
The answer, actually, is no. I've made the point over and over that first games are often deceptive, and that's really something of an oversimplification. First games aren't always the best barometer for a team because they lack context. There's no way to know if a team in Game 1 is playing its best game or its worst game, or whether its opponent is playing its best game or worst game, or whether the opponent is vastly underrated. All we see is that South Carolina got clobbered by 24 points at home, the first time it's lost at home since 2011, and it feels like it's about time to jump ship.
Here's the thing, and I say this more as a statement of possibility than even one of probability: South Carolina still has a chance to win the SEC East and still has a (much smaller) chance of winning the SEC. It wouldn't even be all that unusual.
In fact, there are 13 teams that lost at least one game in the SEC or against a major non-conference opponent in embarrassing fashion and went on to win their division. (Information from Wikipedia, but it tends to be reliable on sports, and there was no evidence that any losses were blamed on aliens.) Take a look.
1992 Florida Gators: at Tennessee, 31-14; at Mississippi State, 30-6
These were in back-to-back weeks, mind you. UF plummeted from No. 4 in the polls to No. 23, and it might have dropped even further had Tennessee and Mississippi State not been pretty good teams back then. The Gators also got carved up by Florida State, 45-24, before almost beating Alabama in the inaugural SEC Championship Game. The Tide would go on to win the national championship.
1995 Arkansas Razorbacks: vs. Tennessee, 49-31; at LSU, 28-0
This might have been the most Houston Nutt of Houston Nutt teams. The Hogs rode a one-point win against Alabama and a two-point win against Auburn to the SEC West title despite lopsided losses to a very good Tennessee team and a mediocre LSU team. I wouldn't necessarily recommend that South Carolina follow the Razorbacks' path to the championship event -- Arkansas got blown out in the Georgia Dome, then lost the bowl and ended the year unranked -- but it still shows it's possible.
1997 Auburn Tigers: vs. Florida, 24-10; vs. Mississippi State, 20-0
In the space of three games, Auburn lost two home games by a combined 44-10. (In between, they beat Arkansas at Arkansas.) The ranking fell from No. 6 to No. 16, but the Tigers rebounded to beat Georgia and win the Iron Bowl before losing by one point against a very good Tennessee team in the SEC Championship Game. The Tigers finished No. 11, which would be decent for South Carolina this year even taking into account some of the preseason expectations.
1998 Mississippi State Bulldogs: at Oklahoma State, 42-23; at LSU, 41-6
Remember a few years ago, when the SEC East was basically a three-month-long demolition derby that produced something resembling a champion every season? The West was kind of like that during a few seasons in the 1990s. Again, not a model you want to follow -- the Bulldogs also lost to a mediocre Kentucky team for good measure and ended the year unranked after losses in the SEC Championship Game and a bowl, but again, a team lost big and ended up in the title game.
2000 Florida Gators: at Mississippi State, 47-35
What, you mean Steve Spurrier's head-scratching losses came even before he set up shop at South Carolina? Sure did. This is the most encouraging example so far, and not just because the Head Ball Coach has done this a couple of times before this season. The Gators went on to win the SEC this year, despite losing by 12 to what ended up being the No. 24 team in the country. Not quite the magnitude of last night's defeat, but a lopsided loss that might have signaled trouble for Florida and ended up just being a hiccup.
2000 Auburn Tigers: at Florida, 38-7
And one of the teams that Florida beat in the interim was Auburn, which got its head returned to it before leaving the Swamp, then got its head returned to it again before leaving the Georgia Dome. So let's just hope that we don't meet Texas A&M in the SEC Championship Game, something that can't be ruled out after last night's performance.
2001 LSU Tigers: vs. Florida, 44-15; vs. Ole Miss, 35-24
You might vaguely remember this team if you were an aware South Carolina fan at the time, because the Tigers' win in the SEC Championship Game basically screwed us out of a Capital One Bowl berth. That's right -- their win in the SEC Championship Game. LSU fell out of the rankings after that loss to Florida in early October and didn't return until late November, then beat Tennessee in Atlanta and knocked of the best Illinois team of any of our lifetimes in the Sugar Bowl to claim a No. 7 ranking at the end of the season.
2004 Tennessee: vs. Auburn, 34-10
That would be the Auburn team that should have gone on to play Southern Cal for the national title, but that's another story entirely. Aside from a four-point loss to Notre Dame, Auburn was the only team that beat the Vols, even if the Tigers made up for it by beating them twice. They ended the season in the Top 15 after winning the Cotton Bowl.
2006 Arkansas: vs. Southern Cal, 50-14
Ah, Houston Nutt, the list was missing something before you showed up again. The Razorbacks ended up losing their last three games and finished at No. 15 in one poll, but they made it to Atlanta. And they gave a Florida team that ended up winning the national title a pretty good game.
2007 Tennessee: at Cal, 45-31; at Florida, 59-20; at Alabama, 41-17
This remains the most improbable division champion in post-expansion SEC history, winning in one of the most improbable seasons in college football history. It took missed field goals, a four-overtime win against Kentucky, the utter implosion of South Carolina and weird losses by Florida and Georgia. This is not a template for anything that could happen in the rational world, but a reminder that college football can be an irrational place.
2010 South Carolina: vs. Arkansas, 41-20
How quickly we forget. Again, I don't think any of us really want to relive how this season actually ended, what with the worst loss in the history of the SEC Championship Game and the heartbreak of losing the Peach Bowl right after that. But it's not just that other teams have been here before -- we've been here before.
2011 Georgia Bulldogs: vs. Boise State, 35-21
The next week, the Dawgs lost to us, and the MARK RICHT HOT SEAT NOW meme picked up full steam. All Georgia did was win the next ten games on its schedule and win the right to get eviscerated by LSU in the SEC Championship Game. South Carolina actually ended up more highly ranked than Georgia but didn't get the SEC East title -- something that could very well happen this year as well.
2012 Georgia Bulldogs: at South Carolina, 35-7
How quickly we forget, again. This Georgia team was actually very, very good -- the Dawgs came within five yards of playing for the national title, as we've heard ad nauseam for the last few years. They had one bad night at South Carolina, but that was about the only bad game Georgia played all year. They and their fans had five weeks of previous games to look back at and realize that they weren't a bad team.
And that last part is why what happened last night hurt so much, and why there's been such a stampede to reassess the Gamecock and readjust expectations over the last day or so. Some of that is good. We need to figure out exactly what happened, and try to make sure that it doesn't happen again. And we -- or, more specifically, the coaches -- need to look at what can be done to fix this year's team in the interim.
What we don't need to do is panic or mope and start talking about enjoying Shreveport in December. We can no longer be confident after Thursday night that South Carolina is good. But that's not the same as knowing that they're not.