Just when you thought this South Carolina football season could not get any worse, it did.
As Tennessee and its small following of fans danced to “Rocky Top” in one corner of Williams-Brice Stadium, a couple handfuls of USC players gathered at the other end of the field to salute the traditional playing of the alma mater.
The scene provided a stark contrast to the two programs, one on the rise with a slew of first- and second-year players and a second-year coach, the other fading into the cold night after yet another stunning loss.
“Yes, this is a tough one,” Steve Spurrier said following the 45-42 overtime loss. “It will take awhile to get this one out of your system. We’ve had about three or four like this, this year. So, I guess I should be getting used to it by now. I have a tough time getting used to these kind of games.”
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This one was the worst of all on the devastating-loss scale.
It was worse than the Missouri debacle, when the Tigers overcame a 13-point deficit in the game’s final seven minutes. It was worse than the Kentucky collapse, when the Wildcats scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns to win.
For longtime USC fans, they might have to search deep into their memory bank to find a more crushing defeat. The Gamecocks had this game in hand. Many of those fans who had braved the bone-chilling cold evening began heading to the exits with 4:52 remaining.
Who could blame them for thinking the win was in hand? Brandon Wilds had just reeled off a 70-yard sprint to the end zone, giving USC what appeared to be an insurmountable 42-28 lead.
They should have known better.
Tennessee had other ideas. The Vols marched 75 yards in 10 plays to pull within 42-35 with 1:50 left. When their onside kick was recovered by USC’s Pharoh Cooper, again the game seemed to be over.
But USC lost 2 yards on three plays and used 27 seconds on the clock. After a punt, Tennessee rolled 85 yards in nine plays, scoring the tying touchdown when quarterback Joshua Dobbs found receiver Jason Croom in the end zone. No USC defender was near Croom.
The overtime was a continuation of the end of regulation. Tennessee kicked a field goal and USC’s offense lost 15 yards before Elliott Fry’s desperation 58-yard field goal attempt fell a good 30 yards short of the goal posts.
The kick signaled what has been a mighty fall for this USC team. It is difficult to fathom now, but the Gamecocks were ranked No. 9 in the country before the season. They were the consensus pick to win their second SEC East championship in five seasons. There was every reason to believe USC could find itself in the talk of reaching the inaugural College Football Playoff.
That was a long, long time ago, back before USC was “outcoached” and “outplayed” by Texas A&M, performed in an “embarrassing” manner in a win against Vanderbilt, according to Spurrier, then humbled in the losses to Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee.
The biggest realization that might have come out of the past three SEC losses was that USC appears to be a program that is reeling. Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee appear to be programs on the rise.
Those programs might be passing USC in front of our eyes.
Who would have imagined that prior to this season, back when USC unfurled an 80-foot high banner of Spurrier outside Williams-Brice Stadium? Spurrier laughed about it at the time, saying that if USC started losing, fans might begin egging his likeness.
USC is 4-5 since then, including 2-5 in the SEC.
Suddenly, Spurrier is no longer bigger than life. USC officials might want to begin having someone stand guard outside the stadium.