South Carolina was walking off the field like so many times in the previous three seasons – after a win. The Gamecocks beat Wisconsin 34-24 in the Capital One Bowl to complete a 33-6 run since the 2011 season-opener, and while there had been no SEC East championships like in the year before the streak, they had no doubt another would come soon.
One week later, they finished as the No. 4 team in America. They had talent, a winning tradition, an ageless coach who was getting better the closer he got to 70. The bad days were forever gone.
Less than two years later, USC is rudderless and adrift in a sea of losses. The Gamecocks finished a 3-9 season with a 37-32 loss to archrival Clemson – so recently a team that was just not great enough to beat USC, but now is the country’s top-ranked squad. In 25 games, USC has had a stunning free-fall to its worst season since a winless 1999, when it was concluding a 21-game losing streak.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
How did it get so bad so quickly? How could a program that had so much going for it lose everything that advanced it to that plateau?
USC has continued to reel in classes that ranked well, but we all know rankings don’t mean much. Many players perform up to their ranking, many of them don’t; what seems to work best is to get as many five- or four-star prospects as possible and then there’s a much greater chance of them playing to the ranking (see: Alabama under Nick Saban).
The Gamecocks scored with five-stars Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney, each home-grown and the latter the country’s top prospect. They surrounded them with four-star talent and it resulted in the winning stretch.
The Gamecocks still got four-stars, but they either washed out of the program or didn’t live up to expectations. There also was a severe lack of the “little guys,” two- or three-star recruits who became very productive players. Not only was there the wasted talent of four-star Shaq Roland, but there were no Nick Joneses or Bruce Ellingtons or the greatest of all the lesser-knowns – Connor Shaw.
USC was left kicking itself for mishandled recruiting during the run (promoting Steve Spurrier Jr. to recruiting coordinator has not resulted in player development) and not taking advantage of its status when it got Lattimore and Clowney. A top talent in Georgia, Florida or North Carolina definitely would have listened from 2011-13. Now, good luck getting them to know that USC is the Gamecocks and not the Trojans.
2. IT’S STILL THE SEC
The league got better. Missouri won two divisional titles. Texas A&M had a Heisman Trophy winner. Auburn ran to the national championship game. Even Vanderbilt had a couple of nine-win seasons.
USC, which had its three finest SEC seasons within its three finest overall seasons, was jolted back to Earth. It also hit home against its rival. Clemson was always stockpiling talent, but USC figured big deal, since the rivalry game would roll around and the Gamecocks would beat them anyway. The Tigers broke the streak last year and are experiencing their best season since they won their national championship. USC is now two years removed from a historic five-year winning streak over Clemson.
3. PILLARS OF NO DEFENSE
Of course losing playmakers such as Clowney, D.J. Swearinger, Kelcy Quarles and Victor Hampton would sting, but USC had a great defensive system. It would simply reload.
That didn’t happen.
Lorenzo Ward’s plan to run a 3-4 base for the 2014 system was hurriedly jerked when Texas A&M did whatever it wanted in the 2014 season opener. That season became a constant guessing game of what defense would show up next, and the answer every Saturday was “the nothing defense.” The Gamecocks were confused and bereft of playmakers. That has stretched into this season, despite new coordinator Jon Hoke.
It’s gotten worse this year. No-name quarterbacks had career days because USC didn’t press at the line. Players proven to be unable to cover downfield continue to play. Nobody not named Skai Moore can tackle. Somewhere, Ellis Johnson covers his eyes.
A gigantic banner of Steve Spurrier was hung outside Williams-Brice Stadium before the 2014 season. Nothing’s gone right since.
Spurrier had a 77-39 record at USC before the banner went up. He was 9-10 afterward.
Lot of other definite reasons why USC has collapsed … but don’t you have to wonder?
The banner was taken down on Wednesday.
5. THE THREE
Perhaps the most incredible thing about the streak was USC would always come up with that big play to preserve a win. Think a Swearinger interception or a Clowney strip-sack or Dylan Thompson’s game-winning TD toss against Michigan. The Gamecocks were a good team made into an elite team because those plays would always happen.
They don’t happen anymore. USC had confidence that it would get something to win during the streak and now plays on its heels, waiting for the next coffin nail to pierce its side. When the Aggies blistered the Gamecocks in 2014 and their incredible sieve of a defense allowed three teams to erase double-digit fourth-quarter leads to win, confidence was not coming back.
6. ‘2-3 YEARS’
Spurrier later admitted he thought about stepping away after 2014, when a team with no defense scrapped to a 7-6 record. I’m sure he had no idea exactly what he was saying at the time when he re-pledged his dedication to USC, but boy, did it have an impact.
When he said he was on his “2-3 year” plan about eventually leaving/retiring, recruits began jumping ship so fast the Gamecocks couldn’t hope to have enough lifeboats to keep them. Spurrier quickly backtracked and corrected himself to “4-5 years,” but it was trying to put toothpaste back in the tube – rivals had always used Spurrier’s age against him, and now they had the biggest piece of ammo they needed. The Gamecocks lost a lot of highly ranked recruits, and while they mostly replaced them in terms of star rating, those players haven’t made an impact.
7. DON’T COUNT US OUT
Spurrier called a hasty July news conference to declare that USC just might be better than picked after his hackles were raised by an Atlanta columnist. Mark Bradley said the program was on a descent, and to him, Spurrier was never a guy who would coach past 70.
Spurrier fired back, saying just because USC lost a few in 2014 didn’t mean he’d forgotten how to coach. Chiding Bradley for working for a paper that “covers the Bulldogs,” Spurrier told all of his fans to not listen to the program’s “enemies,” that they were all simply jealous because USC had finally won enough to earn some hate.
It made for good copy, some entertainment to get through the drudgery of pre-preseason practice. Look at it now and Bradley had the last laugh, as he wrote: “Thanks, (Evil Genius). And I will miss you, kind of. But you did lose two of your final three games against Georgia.”
8. CONNOR II
Connor Mitch was named the starting quarterback, and it was with crossed fingers from the coaching staff.
Not that Mitch didn’t have talent – he clearly won the job. It was because if he went down, the Gamecocks didn’t have many other options.
Mitch separated his shoulder against Kentucky, and had a nasty hip infection from the week before. His season was over.
USC had to turn to Perry Orth, who gallantly tried to save the season. While he played far above his talent, it was the talent of a former walk-on. Lorenzo Nunez was thrust into the role and he responded as a freshman would – good some, some bad and then hurt.
Nobody can predict injuries, but when Mitch went down, the Gamecocks were left looking at their lack of quarterback recruiting and development. Tanner McEvoy was gone because of discipline, and Brendan Nosovitch had his mechanics broken down and rebuilt so that he could barely throw a spiral before he, too, departed. That Orth, an undersized kid who might be battling for a job in Division I-AA, was in this position was an indictment of recruiting and QB development – and it certainly didn’t help that the only other answer was Michael Scarnecchia, recruited to come to USC by Spurrier the same year that (Oklahoma State starter) Mason Rudolph was an hour up the road and didn’t receive one sniff.
9. BIG BLUE
Kentucky beat USC for the second straight season, building a big lead before Orth nearly led the Gamecocks back. Already facing a tough schedule with an undermanned team, the Gamecocks really needed that game if they were going to keep their streak of bowl berths intact.
They didn’t get it, and were then smashed by Georgia and lost to Missouri. That Kentucky and Missouri have each had miserable seasons after beating USC is testament to how bad the Gamecocks have been.
And that’s not even mentioning The Citadel.
Spurrier quit. He couldn’t take the losing and left with his legacy at least partly intact – he never had a full losing season at USC. Those who watched were left with a quandary – Spurrier deserved criticism for walking away halfway through, but everyone who followed the team knew it was the best thing for the team. The Gamecocks were obviously going nowhere under Spurrier, so like he said, why not give somebody else a shot?
That worked, briefly. Shawn Elliott won his first game and was close in Games 2-3. Elliott tried everything he could to will the team to win – and nearly pulled off the upset of the century against Clemson – but he realized that anything this group pulled off would need a whole lot of luck instead of winning by straight talent.
That all goes back to what built the streak, and then what ended it – the Gamecocks spent too much time enjoying it and not nearly enough sustaining.
It adds up to an incredible slide from grace.
Follow on Twitter at @DCTheState