It might seem like a tough day to be a South Carolina fan.
Clemson, the Gamecocks’ archrival, just hammered Alabama 44-16 to win its second national title in three seasons. The Tigers also have beaten the Gamecocks five consecutive seasons.
What happened on Monday night in California made it clear that the Tigers are now (at least) the equal to Alabama, and that’s saying something. The two teams have split the last four national titles while South Carolina has compiled a 25-25 record in that span.
That’s the bad news for Gamecocks fans, and there’s no way to sugarcoat it. The gap between the Midlands and the Upstate remains large. The good news that can be salvaged from the CFP national championship game is this: Clemson has taken the aura of invincibility off of Alabama.
This was not 35-31, the score from two years ago when the Tigers traded punches all night long with the Crimson Tide and were left standing at the end. This was a series of knockout blows for four quarters. Alabama had never been beaten by more than 14 points under coach Nick Saban. Clemson beat them by 28 points.
South Carolina’s football team has two annual goals under coach Will Muschamp, and they do not change – Beat the East and Win the State. Those are references to winning the Eastern Division and beating the Tigers. While the Crimson Tide is not the East, what happened Monday night should buoy everyone in the SEC. Alabama looked not just beatable but flawed in several areas, downright human, a trait that program has flashed only occasionally since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa.
The Gamecocks can’t do much about Clemson’s rise to national prominence. Sure, South Carolina can beat the Tigers in their annual end-of-season rivalry game, but even that might not be enough in some years to knock Clemson out of the playoffs, where it looks like it’s going to be hanging out for a while.
What South Carolina has complete control over is its own fate in the conference. That includes a visit from Alabama next season.
The Gamecocks’ climb back to where they want their program to be, or maybe finally to where they want to be, begins in the SEC.
The Clemson rivalry, for the moment, is going to have to be put on the back burner. That much was clear Monday night as Tigers freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence continued to prove he’s going to be a problem for everyone the next two seasons and Clemson went from gutty contender to clear-cut college football champion. The Tigers are going to be a dark cloud over the Gamecocks for a while, but maybe there’s a silver lining.
What South Carolina can improve on more quickly is its fourth-place finish in the SEC East. It can snap a five-game losing streak against Kentucky. It can move closer to Georgia, which is dominating the division at the moment. And, then, once it does all those things, it can have some hope that there’s not an elephant-gray concrete wall standing at the end of the line anyway.
Alabama is not going to fall from national prominence, but Monday night proved that no one should consider the Tide unbeatable on any day any longer.