Three weeks ago, when Steve Spurrier first started talking about shooting for bowl eligibility, it seemed like coach-speak, the kind of poor mouthing usually done by his more reserved colleagues. It turns out he had reason to be worried. Saturday’s loss to Tennessee, as stunning as it was routine in this season where no lead is safe, changed the complexion of South Carolina’s season.
“Obviously, a very disheartening, disappointing game,” Spurrier said. “We had our chances as we know and didn’t get it done, so we’re 4-5, got three games left. We’re going to try our best to regroup.” They must, and quickly, if they want to play in a postseason game. The Gamecocks must beat Florida or Clemson on the road to qualify for a bowl game. (They must also beat South Alabama at home, and we’re going to count on that being a win despite the surreal nature of this season.)
The second piece of bad news for South Carolina on Saturday was that the Gators seemed to resurrect their season. Not only did Florida whip Georgia 38-20, it did it by rushing for 418 yards on 60 carries. Anyone who saw that performance and has also seen South Carolina’s defensive line no longer likes the Gamecocks’ chances of winning that game.
If South Carolina can’t beat the Gators, the season’s continuation will depend on winning at Clemson and extending its winning streak in that series to six games. It’s not impossible by any stretch. The Gamecocks have won in Death Valley as an underdog before, but it’s not the kind of matchup you like when you have to win to keep the season going. South Carolina has been to six straight bowl games dating to its appearance in the 2009 Outback Bowl. That’s the 15th-longest streak in the country and a milestone that looked for many years like it might never be reached at South Carolina, where the longest previous streak of postseason appearances was two. The Gamecocks have won three straight bowl games, and Spurrier has seemed to value those victories more each year for the momentum they provide to the offseason.
If South Carolina doesn’t turn things around soon, not only will it not get that opportunity, but it will mean it lost six straight games against power conference teams to end the season. Suddenly, all that grumbling (yours and mine, be honest you know you’ve done it) about never going anywhere other than Tampa or Orlando in January seems spoiled. The early week bowl projections that do list South Carolina (notably, Phil Steele’s projection this week does not) think the Belk Bowl in Charlotte is the most likely destination, with The Sporting News guessing it will play Georgia Tech and CBSSports.com projecting a matchup with Notre Dame. Online sports outlet SBNation.com is the only entity holding out hope for another trip to Florida, suggesting an Outback Bowl matchup against Iowa could be on the horizon.
“Yes, South Carolina's still here after losing four of five,” SBNation’s Jason Kirk wrote. “Funny story: in January, I put up WAY-TOO-EARLY bowl projections that had the Gamecocks in the Belk. Everyone got mad and wanted them in a better game. Now I'm probably believing too much in Carolina just by having it in a bowl at all. Life takes turns.” South Carolina fans everywhere are nodding at that.