To be frank, most South Carolina fans believed their football program had moved past the point of celebrating bowl eligibility. So when the Gamecocks clinched a bowl game with Saturday’s victory against South Alabama, there did not seem much to celebrate.
Securing the necessary sixth win in the season’s 11th game probably signals more of how far the program has fallen in one year. In each of the previous four seasons, USC did not have to wait until late November to clinch a bowl berth, doing so in October each time.
Nevertheless, Steve Spurrier wanted to celebrate.
“I told our guys I know another team that is bowl eligible, the South Carolina Gamecocks,” Spurrier said following USC’s 37-12 win. “That was a big win for us, it really was.”
His comments sounded much like his first five seasons at USC, when producing a .500 season and getting to a bowl game was an accomplishment. To his credit, USC has been bowl eligible in each of his 10 seasons, although they were not invited to a postseason game after going 6-6 in 2007.
You need perspective to best understand what bowl eligibility means these days. When the NCAA extended the regular season to 12 games for the 2006 season, it also allowed teams with six wins to qualify for bowl games.
This season, there are 38 bowl games, including the two that will host the first College Football playoff, meaning 76 of the 128 FBS teams will appear in the postseason. As a result, college football is inching closer to being like Little League baseball, where every kid receives a trophy for participating.
It did not used to be that way.
USC went so far as to turn down a bowl invitation following the 1990 season. The Gamecocks became attractive to the Independence Bowl after defeating West Virginia in the final game of the regular season, leaving them with a 6-5 record.
A couple of factors led USC athletics officials to decline an invitation from the bowl played in Shreveport, La. First, the game was played on Dec. 15 in the middle of USC’s final exams. Also, USC did not want to take a financial bath because it could not sell its allotment of tickets. USC played as an independent then and did not have a conference to pick up the unsold tickets as it does now by playing in the SEC.
The explosion of bowl games did not occur until the 1990s. Before then, USC produced many outstanding seasons, yet remained home for the holidays. Most recently, the Gamecocks went 6-4-1 in 1989 and 7-4 in 1973 without playing in a bowl game. Going way back, USC did not play in a bowl game following a 6-2-1 season in 1947, and 7-3 seasons in 1953, 1956 and 1958.
From the first time USC played in a bowl game following the 1945 season until 1999, the Gamecocks would have been eligible for a postseason game 27 times under the current format. They played in nine bowl games during that span.
Since 2000, and including this season, USC has been eligible for a bowl game 13 times and has played in a bowl game on 11 occasions. Besides 2007, the Gamecocks withdrew from consideration for a bowl game in 2004 with a 6-5 record following the brawl against Clemson.
What all that proves is that bowl games are no longer necessarily a reward for a standout season. Instead, many teams receive a prize, as if they just opened a Cracker Jack box, for having a mediocre season.
Such is the case this season for USC, although there is something to be said for how the Gamecocks have rebounded following a devastating loss to Tennessee on Nov. 1 to defeat Florida and South Alabama.
“To be bowl eligible after three weeks ago ... it’s pretty dadgum neat for these guys,” Spurrier said. “I’m really proud of them, I’m proud of these guys. We’ve looked sorry at times this year, as we all know, but they’re fighting to the finish. Give them credit for that.”
Credit given. Just do not go overboard heaping praise on USC for qualifying for a bowl game.