What a difference a year makes
In 2006 the South Carolina Gamecocks were a program in transition. A transition between what they used to be and what they wanted to be. A transition between a program mired in mediocrity and a program that would no longer accept mediocrity. And a transition between "wait ‘til next year" and "next year."
In Steve Spurrier's second year with the program, there were signs South Carolina could be turning into the SEC title contender some Gamecock fans had dreamed of for decades. Fresh off a season in which the Gamecocks knocked off Tennessee in Knoxville for the first time ever and beat Florida for the first time since the 1930's, the Gamecocks were looking to prove they deserved a spot among the nation's elite. However, despite the steps forward, there were still startling moments that brought fans back to reality and reminded them of the 100 years of mediocrity South Carolina still had tugging them back.
The first sign the program was on the rise came in the form of a Thursday night thriller under the lights of Williams-Brice Stadium in an ESPN National telecast. In a drama-laden game that saw South Carolina battle with the nation's No. 2 ranked Auburn Tigers, the young Gamecocks fought to the bitter end, falling a mere touchdown short. It was the first time the upstart Gamecocks showed the heart and determination needed to play every week in America's toughest conference and be successful. With thoughts of a 21 game losing streak and years of heartache still on their minds, the South Carolina faithful rewarded the players with a standing ovation when the clock hit zero. Coach Spurrier soon after told the crowd that they should no longer cheer after games the Gamecocks lost.
Moral victories were no longer acceptable for this program.
After two big SEC wins at Kentucky and at Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Arkansas would travel to South Carolina in back-to-back weeks. Tipped balls would be the story, as on more than one occasion South Carolina defenders saw passes they touched inexplicably land in the opponents' hands. Such things were not new to Gamecock Nation, as they had become used to seeing their team snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The two games would provide a sobering reminder that the Gamecocks had not yet arrived. In two games that saw the Gamecocks squander many opportunities to win a big SEC game and take another big step towards being a contender in the talent-rich SEC East, USC again played tough against two of the most talented teams in the country, but could not break through.
Then came the game in which things really began to change: a November 11th trip to Gainesville to tangle with the eventual National Champion Florida Gators. Prior to the game, many USC fans did not know what to expect as some predicted doom for the Gamecocks. Fooled too many times in the past only to be disappointed by lack of progress, some had lost hope. Plus, not many teams go into "The Swamp" and leave victorious. The Gamecocks outplayed the Gators in every way possible. They out-rushed them, out-passed them, and out-willed them in a game that saw the Gamecocks go toe-to-toe with the Gators without giving a single inch. Once again, the Gamecocks fell short, but this time something was different. This loss was not the same as all the close ones before it. Things were not where they should be, but they definitely weren't where they used to be. For the first time ever the Gamecocks had reason to believe they could line up across from any team in the country and legitimately compete.
The 2006 regular season culminated in what may one day be looked back on as the game that truly marked the turning point of a program that had been so close, so many times before. With South Carolina down 14 points in the second half to bitter rival Clemson, it appeared it would be yet another Tiger victory in a series dominated by them. This time it was not to be. With their collective backs against the wall, the resilient Gamecocks came roaring back to score 17 unanswered points to beat Clemson for the first time since 2001.
Now, nearly 11 months since that epic comeback win, South Carolina finds itself ranked No. 6 in the country and right in the middle of an SEC battle sitting alone atop the Eastern Division. Without anyone knowing it, after decades of hoping and wondering and almost two seasons of coaching, at the blink of an eye, in the span of just three games and without anyone really knowing it at the time, something had irrefutably changed in the South Carolina program. The difference between this year's 6-1 South Carolina team and past teams has been the ability to win close games despite not even playing to their full potential yet. In a college football season that has seen more dramatic upset wins than any in recent memory, the Gamecocks have quietly, confidently found ways to win each week. By simply winning by any means, no matter how ugly it may be, they have done what Michigan couldn't do against 1-AA Appalachian State, Southern Cal couldn't do against 41-point underdog Stanford, and No. 1 LSU couldn't do against Kentucky. This is why when the first set of the Bowl Championship Series rankings were released Sunday, the Gamecocks found themselves at No. 6 in the nation — the same spot the Gators found themselves at this time last year.
Many of the Gamecocks' close victories this season have been in games they would have surely lost in previous years. The Gamecocks' early season trip to Georgia falls in this category. The annual SEC showdown felt like many contests between the teams in the past. South Carolina had led for the entire night, but as the time dwindled down, all 90,000 fans in Sanford Stadium could feel the momentum on Georgia's side as the Bulldogs gradually chipped away at the Gamecocks' lead. For a while it seemed it would play out as many of the past games had and end in a Georgia win. The scrappy Gamecocks, however, decided to write history rather than repeat it and prevailed in a classic, sealed by a Jasper Brinkley interception.
Similarly, in the Mississippi State and Kentucky games, South Carolina found ways to win with big plays. As the Gamecocks seemed to sleep-walk through the first three quarters of the MSU game, a mammoth Eric Norwood blocked punt changed the entire direction of the game and allowed USC to cruise to another conference win. In the Kentucky game, two fumble returns for touchdown, not coincidently also by Norwood, shaped a game in which the offense could not move the ball at all in the third quarter, yet still found a way to comfortably win over the No. 8 ranked Wildcats.
Now the game that has many Gamecock fans in doubt is a recent 6-point triumph over North Carolina — yet another example of a game past South Carolina teams would have lost. In a season as crazy as this one, any road win should be treasured no matter how small the margin of victory.
What's as impressive as the Gamecocks transformation from loser to winner is the fact this team has yet to come close to tapping into its full potential. Remarkably this team has been able to accomplish all it has without a consistent offensive line, a number two receiver, or the team's top defensive player. Not to mention a redshirt freshman quarterback has been running the show for the previous three games. Despite all these things, South Carolina is in perfect position and is poised to have what could be a special season or potentially even the Gamecocks' best season ever. Finally, "next year" might not be a year away.
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