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October 20, 2007: The day the South Carolina Gamecocks dream football season died

One game undid what was supposed to be one of the greatest seasons in Gamecock history

South Carolina Gamecocks

2007 was the year college football got drunk, had a massive party and blacked out the entire night.

A black out night can go many different ways for those who experience it. For some it can be a raucous experience until memory loss, then the next morning is spent laughing at yourself and reliving the memories from your friend’s Snapchat stories.

In this analogy, this is what 2007 was like for Kansas, Kentucky, Boston College and Rutgers. Believe it or not young people, in this year of uncontrollable absurdity those aforementioned teams were respectable opponents.

In other cases the black out night goes well up until the very end. It’s all fun when you’re the life of the party waltzing into random conversations with strangers and setting the house record for the fastest beer bong chug. Even while you’re blacked out, the night runs smooth until you get home and all of the elixir you consumed comes barreling out of your gullet.

This is the story of West Virginia, Oregon and South Florida. All three had great seasons until the end when their dream year was derailed by an injury to a star quarterback or in WVU’s case, Pitt. But even in the midst of heartbreak, fans of those three teams can still look back on 2007 with some fondness.

But there is one more outcome of the blackout night. The one where everything is fine while your memory is still in tact. But once you blackout, you’re finished. You wake up on your friend’s bedroom floor, all of your buddies are angry at you for the previous night’s escapade while you’re forced to sit and relive the shame of you falling down a hill while vomiting on recorded video.

This was the unique circumstance that befell the South Carolina Gamecocks. Sure, the night was great up until a certain point. You flew close to the sun pounding those Keystone Lights and had a ball, but you made the mistake of mixing alcohols when that one guy you knew from college handed you a shot of mystery tequila.

“Go on, take it!” he says. “It’ll be fine.”

That shot for South Carolina was the Vanderbilt Commodores. Just like that shot can totally ruin your long night’s drink, Oct. 20, 2007 ruined South Carolina’s would’ve been, could’ve been, should’ve been dream football season.

South Carolina v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Buildup

Steve Spurrier’s third season in Columbia looked to show a lot of promise after he took over the program in 2005. After a 7-5 debut and an 8-5 Liberty Bowl Championship team the next season, 2007 had the looks of even more improvement with a roster of future NFL players and an at-the-time favorable schedule.

All of the following players were on the SC roster and would go on to have professional careers: Cory Boyd, Kenny McKinley, Chris Culliver, Jared Cook, Weslye Saunders, Patrick DiMarco, Ryan Succop, Eric Norwood, Darian Stewart, Casper Brinkley, Captain Munnerlyn, Jasper Brinkley, Kenrick Ellis, Travian Robertson, Melvin Ingram, Lemuel Jean-Pierre, Jamon Meredith and Cliffton Geathers.

With a redshirt senior quarterback returning in Blake Mitchell and a seemingly solid backup behind him in Chris Smelley, South Carolina had made its case as a breakout candidate going into the 2007 season. And for the first seven games, the Gamecocks were in fact one of the surprise teams to emerge amidst the chaos.

Week one: South Carolina goes up on UL-Lafayette 14-0 in the first six minutes of the game, but the Cajuns came Ragin’ back to tie the score 14-14 in the second quarter. Two rushing touchdowns by Cory Boyd sealed a 28-14 win, perhaps a little too close for comfort for Gamecock fans.

Week two: South Carolina travels to Athens as a heavy underdog to face the No. 11 Georgia Bulldogs, but the Gamecock defense held an insanely talented Bulldog offense to four field goals while Boyd and Kenny McKinley worked just enough magic on offense to eek SC by 16-12 in a trademarked ugly SC-UGA match up.

Week three: Now ranked No. 17 in the country, South Carolina comes back to Willy-B to host FCS South Carolina State. Zoomed out, the 38-3 win seems good enough — though the four interceptions by Blake Mitchell and Tommy Beecher didn’t ease the anxieties of fans heading into LSU next week.

Week four: The weekly CBS SEC match up saw the No. 12 Gamecocks facing the eventual National Champs, the No. 2 LSU Tigers. The Tigers swallowed the Gamecock run game whole (0.6 ypc on 26 carries) and won 28-16, which included scoring a touchdown on this infamous Les Miles special.

Week five: The Gamecocks, now ranked No. 16 after their humbling defeat in Death Valley, rebounds even as they were down 21-17 to the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the third quarter. Behind three unanswered touchdowns — including two by Mike Davis — SC beats MSU 38-21 to improve to 4-1 on the season.

Week six: Imagine a top-11 match up between the Kentucky Wildcats and South Carolina in football — that’s how crazy 2007 was. The Wildcats came in undefeated behind a record setting QB in Andre Woodson, but he was out dueled by none other than Chris Smelley to pull off a 38-23 Gamecock win.

Week seven: Now a top ten team, South Carolina heads to face the North Carolina Tarheels hoping to cement their elite status. Even in what was mostly an anemic offensive performance, Smelley threw three touchdown passes to lead SC past UNC 21-15 to improve to 6-1 on the season.

Could it be? Was this a dream? Did the haze of Joe Morrison’s Marlboro smoke cloud my vision? What was shown on this screen didn’t seem fathomable to many of the Gamecock hopeful who lived through the disappointing nineties and never knew any sort of significant success.

Just three years into his tenure, it seemed like Spurrier was doing with South Carolina the same he’d done at Florida. Even with Tennessee, Clemson, Arkansas and Florida still left on the schedule, the Gamecocks looked like they had the kind of elite defense which could cover up any offensive boo-boos and remain a top-ten team.

Of all the games to worry Gamecock fans, the next week’s match up against the Vanderbilt Commodores was the least of their concerns. Coming in 3-3 and fresh off a tough loss against Georgia, no one suspected the Commodores to be an issue for the No. 6 team in the country.

In hindsight, it’s easier to see where things could have gone wrong. The offense had struggled to be consistent all season, especially at quarterback. Even with the skill talent around Smelley, Mitchell and Beecher, all opponents had to do was stuff the box against a below-average run game and the Gamecock offense was essentially castrated.

At this point it was all too likely the offense was in for a catastrophic meltdown, but even still — Vanderbilt? Not so crazy when we look back on it. At the end of the season Vandy’s defense was ranked 25th in S&P — better than Florida, Clemson, Arkansas and Tennessee.

The same Commodore squad lost to a ranked Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky by a combined 11 points. This was not a pushover Vanderbilt team by any means, but still didn’t have anywhere near the talent the 2007 Gamecocks did on either side of the ball.

But getting back to the present day, there were a few reasons as to why Gamecock fans couldn’t think clearly or even anticipate an upset the week prior to Oct. 20, 2007.

In his last three games, Smelley had lulled the fans to sleep. Not so much by lights out numbers, but rather his consistency. In the previous season Smelley had cemented himself as a solid backup and it was known going into 2007 if Mitchell couldn’t put it together Smelley would take the reigns.

Against Mississippi State, Kentucky and North Carolina Smelley completed 56.9 percent of his 93 passes at 7.6 ypa with seven touchdowns and two picks. Even more impressive, he didn’t get benched once — something that had become a common occurrence in the Spurrier years.

Not to mention South Carolina still had to worry about eventual SEC East champs Tennessee, a Darren McFadden-led Arkansas team, Heisman Trophy winner-to-be Tim Tebow and Clemson who still had the James Davis/CJ Spiller backfield. Other than cornerback DJ Moore and linebacker Jonathan Groff, the 2007 Vanderbilt team was void of any real star power.

The game was supposed to be insignificant. The game was broadcast on Comcast Sports Southeast (CSS) for goodness sake, a network that doesn’t even exist anymore. But the 79,212 people who showed up at Williams Brice that afternoon had no idea what they were in for.

Kentucky v Vanderbilt Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Oct. 20, 2007

It’s game day in Columbia. The No. 6 team in the country was up bright and early for their 12:30 kickoff against Vanderbilt. But even against a 3-3 team like the ‘Dores, South Carolina had filled Willy-B to its highest capacity of the year at that point.

So in front of a hyped crowd in Columbia, Ryan Succop kicked off to Vanderbilt and DJ Moore ran the ball out to put Vanderbilt on their own 40. The game was underway.

Q1 11:13 - After converting a 3rd-and-5, Vanderbilt lined up to convert another 3rd-and-1 but were dropped for a loss by Eric Norwood to force a punt on the opening drive. So far so good.

Q1 9:49 - Even after being punted deep in their own territory, SC converts a first down to get outside of their own ten. But on a 2nd-and-10 Moore jumps a throw from Chris Smelley to Deon LeCorn and gives Vandy the ball back on the SC 24.

Q1 8:21 - SC forces a 4th-and-1 following the interception, leading to conservative Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson electing to kick the field goal to give the ‘Dores a quick 3-0 lead.

Q1 8:15 - Chris Culliver returns the ensuing kick for SC and fumbles the ball, but luckily it’s recovered by fellow Gamecock Cody Wells. Certainly by now ball security is something being preached on the SC sidelines. Right?

Q1 8:07 - Cory Boyd breaks a run to the outside and finds a seam, but in ripping through a tackle sees the ball roll right out of his hands and into the arms of the Vanderbilt defense. So two drives, two turnovers inside your own 25. Fine start by SC.

Q1 6:50 - SC forces a 3rd-and-8 at their own 22, forcing Vanderbilt into a passing situation. With a three-man bunch formation on the right side, Vandy WR George Hamilton runs a post pattern to the endzone pylon. Captain Munerlyn and Brandon Isaac lose him and is hit relatively wide open for the touchdown.

All of a sudden the No. 6 team in the country is down 10-0 with less than ten minutes off the clock. The South Carolina offense couldn’t look more inept and already you can feel the sphincters tightening inside Willy-B.

The next two drives see the Gamecock offense produce two three-and-outs which net -8 yards of offense. We now move to Vanderbilt’s fifth offensive drive of the game:

Q1 0:17 - Even after giving up a 19-yard run to QB Mackenzi Adams, SC holds Vandy to a 3rd-and-5 on the stroke of the second quarter. Vandy WR Justin Wheeler finds a soft spot in SC’s cover-three zone and sneaks behind the linebackers for a 20-yard touchdown catch.

The first quarter ends. Vanderbilt leads No. 6 South Carolina 17-0.

I’ll go ahead and give the audience a spoiler: Vanderbilt scores 17 points this entire game. They exhausted all of their points in the first quarter.

So if I tell a SC fan watching this game in 2007, “Vandy won’t score any more points” — that’s a relief right?

Surely — even as awful as the Gamecock offense has been this game — SC will find a way to pull back in right? Well, let’s find out.

By now Mitchell and Smelley are alternating at QB since Smelley’s start has been so bad. However, neither QB is effective at this point. Following Vandy’s last touchdown the Gamecock offense manage nine plays and 13 yards over the next two drives. All the while the Gamecock defense forces a missed field goal and an interception in this time span.

We now move to later in the second quarter.

Q2 6:52 - The offense finally looks to be in rhythm. Smelley connects on his first four passes of the drive to move SC up to the Vandy 18. However a ten-yard sack kills the drive, as Smelley can only manage an 11-yard scramble on 3rd-and-20 to set up SC’s first points of the game. 17-3 is your score.

Q2 3:40 - The SC defense forces another three-and-out and the ensuing punt sees Munerlyn return the kick 46 yards to the Vandy 17. It’s field position not even the Gamecock offense can screw up.

Q2 2:15 - Even after a false start, SC is able to make it 4th-and-2 and looks to go for it to try and get back in the game. But a substitution infraction causes the Gamecock offense to move back five yards, thus forcing a field goal by the Gamecocks. This ends the half, with the Gamecocks down 17-6.

Now, we could stop the story here. Why, you ask? I’m not going to spoil the ending for you, but let’s just say a majority of the game action happens in the first half. SC’s offense can’t get out of their own way and the Gamecock defense is doing all they can to keep the game within arms’ reach.

But if the defense knew what was in for them in terms of offensive support, they might as well have packed up and walked out of Willy-B. It wasn’t getting any better from there. We move ahead to the second Gamecock drive of the second half.

Q3 11:17 - A big pass from Smelley to Boyd gets the Gamecocks across midfield and even on a 3rd-and-14, a crucial 17 yard catch by McKinley sets up the SC offense on the Vandy 13 with a fresh set of downs. The very next play, Smelley looks to find McKinley again in the end zone but instead finds Moore AGAIN for his second interception.

In all fairness, it’s a damn fine play by Moore. But we digress...

Q3 2:35 - Mitchell is back in at quarterback for the Gamecocks. He’s able to work down the field 44 yards from the SC 24 to set up a 3rd-and-6, which ends in an in incomplete pass. Spurrier elects to go for it on fourth, but a d-line stunt confuses the SC protection scheme and sees Mitchell run out of the pocket and throw an errant pass. Turnover on downs.

Q4 12:12 - Mitchell is still in at QB and finds McKinley for 23 yards down to the Vandy 35 yard line. So once again, SC finds their way inside the ‘Dore 40 yard line. On 2nd-and-10 Mitchell follows Smelley’s lead and finds Jonathan Groff on a pass well behind the intended receiver for SC’s third interception of the game.

Q4 2:48 - South Carolina is running out of time. SC is set up with the ball at their own seven yard line and Mitchell is pulled for Smelley one final time. One a third-and-one from his own 16, Smelley can’t complete a one-yard pass on two separate occasions and turns the ball back over to Vanderbilt.

The game ends on three runs by Vanderbilt, sealing the score at 17-6. Yes, there were no points scored in the second half. SC averaged 1.2 ypc, 5.9 ypa and would commit four turnovers in the game. Even as the Gamecock defense held Vandy to 4.4 yards per play, constantly being in terrible field position via the SC offense’s ineptitude ultimately cost the team.

The loss drops SC to 6-2 on the season and 3-2 in conference. Worse yet, the toughest stretch of schedule stills lays ahead of South Carolina. But the Gamecocks can surely pull out one of those games to secure a .500 conference record, right?

Florida v South Carolina Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

The Aftermath

South Carolina had four more games to prove they were worthy of holding a top-ten ranking. Deservingly so, SC was dropped from No. 6 to No. 15 after the inexplicable loss to Vandy. But the next week SC traveled to Tennessee, who was 3-3 and fell out of the top 25 after losing to unranked Alabama 41-17 the previous week. Perhaps this was the medicine SC needed to cure their ails and rebound from a devastating loss.

Week nine: The game against the Tennessee Volunteers starts a poorly as one could imagine. SC commits two turnovers and falls down 21-0 at halftime, but behind an all-time great performance by Kenny McKinley helps bring SC back to have the game tied 24-24 by the end of regulation. Alas, Ryan Succop couldn’t hit a 41-yard FG in the first overtime to hand the game to Tennessee — who would go on to win four games in a row to represent the East in the SEC Championship game.

Week ten: Now ranked No. 23 and having endured two crushing losses in a row, South Carolina plays host to the Arkansas Razorbacks. South Carolina boasted a more-than-solid run defense, but that didn’t matter with Darren McFadden coming to town. All McFadden did was rack up an SEC record 323 yards rushing as Arkansas shot out to a 21-3 first quarter lead. South Carolina would outscore the Razorbacks the rest of the way, but the first quarter deficit was too much to overcome — Gamecocks lose 48-36.

Week eleven: By now SC has dropped out of the top 25 for the first time since week two and to make matters worse Tim Tebow is coming to town. Even with dampened spirits, South Carolina actually plays a competitive first quarter by taking a 14-13 lead after 15 minutes. But much like McFadden in the previous week, Tebow would go on to give a record-breaking performance by rushing for five touchdowns to outscore SC 38-17 the rest of the way. Florida wins, 51-31.

Week thirteen: After a bye week and sitting at 6-5 on the season, SC went from being a top ten team to being in danger of missing a bowl game. Life came by the Gamecocks way too fast, but they had one last shot at redemption against rival Clemson. In Williams Brice Stadium in what was the final game of the year, Clemson shot out to a 17-7 lead going into the second half. Blake Mitchell would bring SC back with a pair of touchdown passes to lead Clemson 21-20 with nine minutes left in the game.

With a 1:40 left in the game, Clemson QB Cullen Harper had the ball at his own 22. SC’s defense had held Clemson to just 13 offensive points, so it seemed feasible that the Gamecocks could hold the Tiger offense out of field goal range.

Instead, Clemson WR Aaron Kelly catches four passes for 70 yards to work Clemson inside the Gamecock 20 with three seconds left. Clemson kicker Mark Buchholz chipped in the 35-yarder for the win, leaving Willy-B lifeless, stunned and sick to their stomachs.

There it was.

From 6-1 to 6-6.

From No. 6 to No. nothing.

It happened in the blink of an eye in the most frustrating way possible. Two losses decided by field goals and another inexplicably lost at the hands of an offense which couldn’t get out of its own way. Did Gamecock fans even want to make a bowl game after the disparaging events of the past five weeks?

Luckily for them, they wouldn’t have to watch any football the rest of the season. The SEC only had nine bowl slots in 2007, so it came down between Kentucky and South Carolina for the final spot. Since Kentucky had the better overall record (7-5) and didn’t end their season on a five game losing streak, they received the invite to the Music City Bowl.

So there stood South Carolina. Postseason-less and utterly soured on football, possibly forever. To this day when the name Chris Smelley is brought up, SC fans can still hear Clemson fans chanting ”P.U.” as he took the field. We can still see Ryan Succop — arguably the best kicker in school history — missing a 41-yarder in Knoxville to lose an overtime game.

2007 will continue to haunt those who were there to see it. 2007 was undoubtedly a crazy year for college football and it gave the CFB world as a whole an unforgettable season. But for some schools, 2007 was a season they’d rather forget like a night spent in jail after a blackout binge drinking session.

For South Carolina, it was the kind of night that makes you want to quit drinking forever. And it took a bad turn on that one shot of Juarez which sent you into an uncontrollable spiral for which there was no recovery.

That shot was Oct. 20 2007, the day which will live in SC infamy for generations to come.