August 27, 2009
Part of the Doc's SEC Week.
It may have been an exaggeration a few months back when Steve Spurrier suggested his first four years at South Carolina represented the most successful four-year run in Gamecock history, but it was (somewhat depressingly) not that far off the mark: His 28 wins since 2005 ties the school record for most wins in any four-year window, and his winning percentage (.560) is third on USC's all-time list. The Ball Coach remains the most prominent figure at Carolina since George Rogers and probably as steady a captain as the 'Cocks could hope to find.
In fact, it was only two years ago, heading into 2007, that South Carolina was something of a chic pick in some quarters to make a run at its first East division title in only Spurrier's third year, a testament to the lingering respect for Spurrier's masterful run at Florida and the obvious progress USC made in his first two seasons. The 'Cocks started that year 6-1 and rose to No. 6 in the BCS rankings. I imagine it's that sense of optimism, unfulfilled and almost entirely diminished after losing five in a row from that high and going 7-11 over the next year-and-a-half, that makes Spurrier often seem like such a resigned, exasperated man these days.
Maybe that's not the case. (He has kept his sense of humor, even if the barbs or more self-directed than they were in his hey day.) Maybe I'm projecting because I would feel resigned and exasperated, if I'd been so far up the mountain only to be buried under a string of indignities, including but not limited to:
• Being shut out of a bowl game following the five-game losing streak in '07, after being ranked in the top 10 in mid-October.
• Three straight losses to end 2008, by a combined score of 118-30.
• Two straight losses to Vanderbilt, against whom Spurrier was undefeated at Florida.
• Two straight losses to Clemson.
• Four different starting quarterbacks, all inadequate.
• A dramatic offensive decline, from 26 points and almost 400 yards per game in '06 an '07 to 20 points and 315 yards last year.
The window has slammed shut so emphatically that it almost seems hard to believe it ever existed in the first place. And whether it did or not, it's hard to find any reason it might open again soon -- beginning with talent relative to the rest of the SEC. Spurrier has probably upgraded Carolina's overall athleticism with roughly top-25 classes nationally four years in a row, including top-15 classes in 2009, according to Rivals. But that’s only been good for middle-of-the-pack returns in the SEC, where Spurrier’s classes have finished ranked sixth or worse four of his five years, behind some combination of Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, LSU and Auburn. USC remains a clear second-tier feeder in that regard.
The deficit has shown up mainly along the lines, where Carolina has finished dead last in the conference in rushing two years in a row, allowed more sacks than any other SEC team and wallowed at 11th, 9th, 12th and 7th against the run under two different defensive coordinators. In those areas -- on the offensive line especially, where, unlike the somewhat underachieving defensive line, even the recruiting hype has not been kind -- the physical gap is the toughest to overcome.
The persistent issues at quarterback, though, have been more mystifying: The main members of last year's pas de deux under center, Chris Smelley and Stephen Garcia, were both major four-star prospects pursued by most of the SEC, which Danny Wuerffel in his day certainly was not. Hell, Blake Mitchell didn’t cut an exactly Manning-esque figure in the pocket, but he was one of the most efficient passers in the league in 2006 (with converted receiver/emergency QB Syvelle Newton not far behind). It's hard to imagine Garcia, who completed slightly less than 42 percent of his passes with seven interceptions over the last six games of '08, as qualifying as "efficient" under any circumstances. The old Gator pixie dust Spurrier sprinkled just to take Auburn, Florida and Tennessee to the final seconds in 2006 has largely disappeared.
The good news is that Garcia, erratic as he was, was only a redshirt freshman last year and didn’t betray any of the hype over his physical skills; if he'd accepted the offers to Florida or Oklahoma instead, he'd still be biding his time as the heir apparent to one of the most dominating offensive systems in the country as an upperclassman. Maybe, with a year under his belt, this is the year he begins to fulfill that kind of potential to whatever extent possible despite much less surrounding talent, and Spurrier will seem less likely to start twitching uncontrollably during halftime and postgame interviews. The coach-quarterback connection is an elusive thing. But given Spurrier’s history of instability at quarterback -- whether by injury and impatience, he's had two different regular starters each of the last three years at Carolina -- and the perpetual struggles of the offensive line, Garcia's sophomore campaign might qualify as a success if he’s still upright and atop the depth chart at the end of it. If he actually manages to the 'Cocks above .500 against a schedule with at least seven games they'll enter as likely underdogs, that's just gravy.