Josh Kendall

USC’s climb back to the top starts in Birmingham

Michigan is No. 6 in the country.

Wisconsin is No. 8.

Nebraska is No. 24.

The connection here already has dawned on most South Carolina fans. Those are the three teams the Gamecocks beat in bowl games following their three consecutive 11-win seasons. Those seasons seem very long ago in some ways, but it was only 2011-13.

As South Carolina prepares to face South Florida, and as an 11-point underdog no less, in the Dec. 29 Birmingham Bowl, it’s hard for the team’s fans not to feel wistful about those days playing the Wolverines, Badgers and Huskers. It only makes the feeling worse to see all three of those teams are right back in the rare air of college football.

Michigan will play in the Orange Bowl this year. Wisconsin is in the Cotton Bowl. Nebraska is in the Music City Bowl. And it’s not as if those teams have had a smooth road since losing to the Gamecocks. All three have changed coaches. While Steve Spurrier beat Brady Hoke at Michigan, the Wolverines now have Jim Harbaugh. Wisconsin has gone from Gary Andersen to Paul Chryst, Nebraska from Bo Pelini to Mike Riley. All three new coaches are in their second season.

So what happened to the Gamecocks, whose road since that stretch has been downright rocky? It’s really no mystery. The players who led those South Carolina teams to those victories are almost all getting paychecks to play now.

Quarterback Connor Shaw was the leading passer in all three of those games and the leading rusher in another. Three players led South Carolina in receiving in those games. All three – Alshon Jeffery, Bruce Ellington and Ace Sanders – were on NFL rosters. Jeffery and Ellington still are. NFL safety D.J. Swearinger was the leading tackler in two games. NFL cornerback Stephon Gilmore had an interception against Nebraska. Those kind of players just aren’t on the Gamecocks roster at the moment.

That three-year Golden Age of bowl games was bookended by Florida State (a loss) and Miami (a win). For a South Carolina program that tried so long to be a part of college football’s competitive class, it felt a lot like the Gamecocks had made it. Victories over the Nos. 1, 3 and 42 winningest programs of all time can make a team feel like it’s arrived.

Then came 7-5 and 3-9, and now South Carolina is 6-6 and headed back to another nondescript bowl game (with all apologies to Birmingham, which is a fine city with many lovely eating establishments). Nondescript is what Gamecocks bowl trips looked like for a long time. Long before the Capital One, Outback, Capital One run, there were plenty of Tangerine and Hall of Fame and Carquest games in the annals.

Will Muschamp will be in Year Two next year, just like Harbaugh and Chryst and Riley are now, but no one is expecting a quick return trip to the top 10 like Michigan and Wisconsin (and for a time this season, Nebraska) made. The Gamecocks simply don’t have the safety net of tradition those programs have.

It’s a lot easier to go from 5-7 to 10-3 in back-to-back seasons at Michigan (as the Wolverines did from 2014 to 2015) than at South Carolina. The climb back will have to be more methodical for the Gamecocks, and it starts in Birmingham, Ala., on Dec. 29.