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Decade Debate: For USC, 1980s or 2000s?

Ryan Brewer
Ryan Brewer

South Carolina's best decade in football? Easy, huh? Right now, isn't it?

Sure, just look at the numbers.

Oops.

Or, to borrow a thought from Lee Corso, "Not so fast."

The 1980s, which got off to a roaring start in George Rogers' Heisman Trophy season, demand a closer look.

The 2000s, which got off to a roaring start with back-to-back Outback Bowl victories, welcome the challenge.

OK, let's take a look. Wow! Can numbers that paint such a remarkably similar picture lead to such a different conclusion?

Between 1980-89, the Gamecocks posted a .561 winning percentage (63-49-3), featured six teams that would be bowl eligible today, knocked off three teams ranked in the top 10 and twice earned a place in the final AP poll.

Between 2000-09, the Gamecocks posted a .562 winning percentage (68-53), featured eight bowl-eligible teams, knocked off three teams ranked in the top 10 and twice earned a place in the final poll.

Without research, would anyone believe how close those statements are? The biggest difference on paper is three bowl wins in the 2000s compared to four postseason whiffs in the '80s.

Those facts support the theory that statistics can be used to prove anything, note a couple of longtime observers who say the similarity of the numbers represents a lie. What they see on the field, not on a list of data, leads to their conclusions.

"We had some great players and good teams in the '80s," says Brad Edwards, All-American free safety on the 1987 squad that is often consider the school's best. Then he continues with one word that tells everything, "But ..."

Tommy Suggs, quarterback on the Gamecocks' 1969 ACC championship team and longtime analyst on the school's football network, does not need a qualifier. "It's a different world now," he says. "The quality and intensity of the competition is so much different now."

Indeed, not only has the game changed, but the alliances are different, and there is no doubt today's Gamecocks - in the SEC - face much sterner competition game-in and game-out than did their predecessors of two decades ago while playing the schedule of an independent.

"We played some top-10 teams," Edwards says, recalling the 1987 season, in which the Gamecocks faced four opponents ranked eighth or better (at Nebraska, at Miami, Clemson, LSU in the Gator Bowl - plus at 20th-ranked Georgia). "We had the ability to knock on the door nationally; the top 10 was within our reach on several occasions.

"That said, I look at what Steve (Spurrier) is on the verge of (accomplishing) now. The athleticism is better; players are faster, stronger and quicker overall. I think Carolina is in position to challenge in the (SEC) East, and that's saying a lot. When you think about competition in anything, the SEC East football is as challenging as it gets."

Suggs sees the same things.

"This is six years in a row of becoming (bowl) eligible," Suggs says. "Compare where we have been to where we're going is night and day. The critical thing now is Carolina is developing a program, not just a winning team. (The Gamecocks) have had some great players and winning teams and played some national powers in the past, but the overall program did not have the foundation."

Building an infrastructure through continuity will lead to a program that has consistency, accountability, good coaches and good athletes, Suggs says.

"With a foundation, you can reload, not rebuild, all the time," he says. "(Carolina) just hasn't been consistent. Look at it this way: If you build a city, you have to have more than houses. You have to have water, electricity, sewer and other services. Same thing with an athletic program; you have to have more than a team."

Building a successful program does not happen overnight, and some vocal fans have been critical of Spurrier this season - something difficult to imagine when he took over for Lou Holtz after the 2004 season.

"It takes a while to get there, and a lot of teams have been (winning consistently) a lot longer than Carolina has," Suggs says. "But we're headed in the right direction now, and that's the important thing."

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