Nothing says more about Steve Spurrier’s tenure at South Carolina than this: Leading into Saturday’s Independence Bowl, fans of the Gamecocks were frustrated.
The team ended the regular season with a 35-17 loss to rival Clemson, which dropped the program to 6-6 on the year. That kind of record no longer flies in Columbia.
Under Spurrier, South Carolina has expected much more.
Saturday’s 24-21 win over Miami in the Independence Bowl wasn’t exactly the season-ending result South Carolina had hoped for heading into the season. After all, it entered the year as a preseason top-10 team. But despite a disappointing campaign, the legendary Spurrier avoided a disappointing ending in Shreveport. Now the coach can use that momentum to fix his program in the offseason.
The Gamecocks needed their problematic defense to step up against Miami, and that’s exactly what happened. The 93rd-ranked total defense in the country (433.6 yards per game) forced three Hurricane turnovers and limited its opponent to 6-of-14 on third downs. Miami scored only two touchdowns, both in the second half.
With Miami driving to take the lead with under six minutes to play, running back Duke Johnson fumbled and South Carolina’s Gerald Dixon recovered. The Gamecocks turned that miscue into a touchdown run by quarterback Dylan Thompson to take a 24-14 lead with 4:14 left. The Hurricanes would score again, but it was too little, too late as South Carolina ran out the clock from there.
Prior to Spurrier’s arrival in Columbia, most fans would’ve been content with a bowl game against a 6-6 opponent. South Carolina went to three bowl games in the 16 years before Spurrier took over. But its win against the Hurricanes marked the program’s fourth straight bowl victory and seventh consecutive bowl appearance. Postseason trips are the new norm for the Gamecocks.
But contending in the SEC is also the new expectation, which is what Spurrier failed to do this year. South Carolina entered the season having won 11 games in each of the last three years. The roster immediately looked flawed when Texas A&M handed Spurrier a 52-28 shellacking on opening weekend. This season included losses to Kentucky and Tennessee, and it took overtime for the Gamecocks to survive Florida.
The Head Ball Coach has resurrected South Carolina, but many wondered if he’d lost his touch. He’ll have to prove that he hasn't next season. The SEC East was wide open this year, and it’s likely that scenario remains in 2015. Momentum from Saturday’s bowl win will help his cause. Only once in Spurrier’s college career has he finished a season with a losing record. That was in 1987, his first year at Duke.
Beating Miami won’t feel like a huge win for South Carolina fans, but Spurrier’s history suggests this lull won’t last in Columbia. The Head Ball Coach will be back.