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Steve Spurrier has never been accused of overstating his teams' abilities -- no coach over the years has been as entertainingly forthright about the shortcomings in his own shop -- but he's never been accused of modest goals, either: Since he arrived at South Carolina, the Ol' Ball Coach has talked about bringing the school its first SEC championship, just as he did at Florida, where he left with six conference titles in 12 years from 1990-2001.
That's always been a longer shot at South Carolina, perennial also-ran in the top-heavy SEC East. But it's never looked further away than it did during Saturday's 20-7 PapaJohns.com Bowl humiliation at the hands of Connecticut, the Gamecocks' fourth loss in their last five games, and the OBC sounded like he knows it in a postgame apology to Carolina fans:
"The first thing I'm going to do and hopefully half the team does is apologize to about 30,000 Gamecocks that came down here to see a football game and we couldn't put one on," Spurrier said. "I'm embarrassed. Blame me. I don't know what else to do. We felt we had coached our butts off and had the guys ready to play. But obviously we did not. It was a sad effort, especially the offense. We had a lot of breakdowns. But we had breakdowns all year and still won some games."
"All I can do is apologize," Spurrier continued. "UConn was a much more disciplined team than we fielded out there today. They didn't have careless penalties on third down like we did. They didn't hit guys late like we did. They played very well. I thought we would play a lot better. But it didn't work out."
This is the second straight USC season to end on a Spurrier apology (he also said "sorry about that" last January to fans who traveled for the Gamecocks' turnover-filled, 31-10 Outback Bowl loss to Iowa), but Saturday's loss feels like a much greater blow to the cause -- not because it came against more obscure program, but because it wasn't really hard to see coming. Once again, Carolina finished last in the SEC in rushing offense for the fourth time in five years under Spurrier, and once again the Gamecocks flopped down the stretch, dropping five of their last seven (all by double digits) after a 6-1 start, just as they'd dropped their last three in 2008 and their last five after a 6-1 start in 2007; altogether, USC is now 3-10 over the last three years in games played on or after Halloween. To that template, however, the '09 Gamecocks added perhaps the most spectacular offensive implosion in the nation, finishing next-to-last in the conference in scoring (ahead of only Vanderbilt, which didn't win an SEC game) by failing to score more than 16 points in all but one of their last seven.
I was one of many before the game who thought that one, a 34-point outburst against rival Clemson in the season finale, might be a sign the young 'Cocks were preparing to turn the corner against a supposedly less talented Husky outfit playing a long way from home in Birmingham. Instead, one of the worst-ranked defenses in the Big East held Carolina to seven punts, two turnovers, three turnovers on downs and zero points through the first three-and-a-half quarters, sending Carolina home again with the sobering reality that the gap is only getting wider:
Five years into Spurrier's tenure, stocked entirely with his recruits in his system, this remains a terrible offense that (flashes against Georgia and Clemson notwithstanding) ultimately showed almost no signs of progress from the unit that stunk it up in the season-opening win at N.C. State to the unit that stunk it up the season-closing loss to the Huskies.
Some of that can be attributed to playing a tough lineup of defenses, including two of the three or four best in the nation in Alabama and Florida; some of it can be laid at the feet of extreme youth (the starting quarterback was a sophomore, and the leading rusher and two of the three leading receivers were freshmen); some of it comes back to the chronic inability to score touchdowns despite moving the ball well on occasion. But the fact is, South Carolina fans have had the same conversation now for three years running, and have yet to see any progress. At 64 years old, Spurrier contends he's still got four or five years left in him, and he's certainly not going to be fired unless the bottom falls out completely in a way it hasn't yet. But if the latest crop of young guns doesn't deliver some of the long-promised firepower next fall, you have to wonder if he's ever going to get tired of apologizing and concede that this experiment just isn't working.