Snap Judgments – 2017 USC @ Tennessee Edition

Photo: postandcourier.com

Ugly as a brand. Saturday’s win over Tennessee was an ugly one, let’s be honest. But before I continue let me go ahead and state what a lot of you are thinking:

I DON’T CARE HOW WE WIN AS LONG AS WE WIN A WIN IS A WIN IS A WIN.

I agree totally, now unbunch your undergarments and let me talk about this, because it is quite possible you are going to need to get used to this fact:

After five and a half years as a head coach, Will Muschamp’s brand of football, win or lose, is ugly. It was like that at Florida, and is now like that at South Carolina.

Under Muschamp we will most likely never be clean and sleek and fast-paced. When we win we will choke teams out, just like we did to Tennessee on Saturday. We lumbered along against the Vols, punching them in the face on defense and tripping over our own feet on offense, looking like the football version of Rocky Balboa. It looked a lot like how his Florida teams used to play.

I’m sure there’s some part of Coach Boom that would love to roll up 600 yards of offense and 55 points in a blowout win. But even if we had the talent and play calling to do that, I guarantee you he would put the brakes on the offense long before we came close to reaching those numbers. It’s just in his DNA.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing, I’m just saying it’s a thing. And it’s a thing we need to get used to because there’s very little evidence to suggest Will Muschamp teams are anything else. If you want this program to be a Ferrari or a Porche, forget it. We’re a damn mud-covered 2007 Dodge 2500 with a dent in the left rear quarter panel and sounds terrible but by God runs just fine and gets us from point A to point B in the maximum amount of time allowed.

Ugly is our brand. And as long as wins keep coming with the ugly, I’m perfectly fine with it.

Roper hope. There are plenty of people who put the blame for our offensive struggles squarely on the shoulders of Kurt Roper. I’ve done it myself, and the members of TRC even had a frank discussion at halftime on Saturday about where we would turn if Roper was to be fired. Then, in the second half, he proceeded to direct the offense about as well as he has all season.

He began bringing a man in motion on running plays to give the appearance of a speed sweep, which froze Tennessee perimeter defenders enough to allow for some holes to open in the middle of the line. He gave Jake Bentley a read option play on which Jake kept twice on our touchdown drive for nice gains. He included some off tackle run plays which were bounced outside for big yardage on our crucial final drives. In other words, he realized a lot of the offensive game plan was not working so he made some adjustments that eventually helped us win the game.

I’m not saying I’m quite in Kurt Roper’s corner just yet. I’m still not sure why it took an entire half to fix some of the issues, which seem like simple sideline adjustments. And I’m not sure why most Saturdays our game plan doesn’t really spring into action until the game is already 1/4 over.

But I am saying maybe things aren’t always as bad as they seem, and maybe Kurt Roper isn’t always as bad as he seems.

Milk carton alert. Hayden Hurst disappeared against Tennessee on Saturday. He had zero catches on only two targets, and one rush for four yards. How do you not involve your all-SEC tight end more in your game plan? Honestly I think the Volunteers and their defensive coordinator Bob Shoop had a lot to do with that. They identified Hurst as the one man who was not going to beat them and designed their defensive strategy accordingly. That defense knew exactly where Hurst was on every play and had him bracketed most of the game. The beneficiary of that strategy was…

Plastic man. While Bryan Edwards didn’t have spectacular numbers (6-63), he proved why he is now the Gamecocks’ number one wide receiver. After a crucial early drop, he played with a toughness, fire and determination we hadn’t seen out of him before. He was the key player in the Gamecocks’ lone touchdown drive.

Favorable conditions. Facing an improving and confident Gamecock defense was a bad match-up for Tennessee, as they had already been struggling getting the ball in the end zone. Prior to their final 73-yard drive, USC had held UT to 180 yards of total offense and three and outs on half their possessions.

Tennessee has not scored a touchdown now in ten consecutive quarters, and next up for them is…gulp…Alabama.

Wonnum? Can’t have him. DJ Wonnum was named the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week for the second week in a row, and has become the best edge rusher we’ve seen since a guy who wore number 7. Not too shabby for a guy we flipped from Indiana.

Fenton Island. Still no touchdown catches against Rashad Fenton, but he panicked a little at the end of the game and committed a bad pass interference. We still good though.

Headstrong. Taylor Stallworth picked up a ridiculous penalty in a critical situation on Saturday when he was flagged for continuing to play after his helmet came off. Unlike a lot of you, I don’t necessarily think this is a terrible rule. But I think it was poorly applied against Stallworth, who a) had his helmet ripped off, which should’ve been a penalty on UT, and b) lightly fell onto a guy who was in the grasps of someone else and already going down. The officials have to use some common sense in that situation as Stallworth was in very little danger of getting hurt at that point.

Continuing on that subject, Will Muschamp had an interesting quote on the penalty:

You know what, if a player decides he wants to stick his face in there without a helmet on, he’s making his own judgment. That’s what Will Muschamp would do. I would stick my face in the fire every time. It is a dumb rule.

First, that’s a fairly reckless take by Muschamp considering how high-profile head injuries are in today’s game.

Second, if your helmet comes off around a bunch of elite athletes who are still wearing theirs I hope your first thought isn’t, “hmmm, I wonder what Will Muschamp would do in this situation.”

“You got a home field timekeeper here”. With nine seconds remaining in the game color analyst Tommy Turbeville says “you’ve barely got enough time for two plays.” Tennessee got off three. I wonder if that clock operator knows just how bad all the Tennessee fans want Butch Jones gone.

Go Cocks, relax on your open date.

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Snap Judgments – 2017 Kentucky @ USC

Photo: thestate.com
Some quick, barely researched, not fully-formed thoughts from South Carolina’s 23-13 loss to Kentucky.

Fool’s Gold. I fell for it again. Just like in 1988 when we started 6-0 and were ranked number six. Just like in 2007 when we were 6-1 and ranked number seven. And any other year we started strong and flamed out. I ignored the signs then, and I ignored them this season after a 2-0 start.

No, we weren’t ranked in the top 10, and we’re much earlier in the season than those other years. But most of us were fooled that this was a good football team because nobody outside of Columbia, SC expected us to be 2-0 heading into our home opener against Kentucky. Oh I mentioned it on this blog, and talked about it on our podcast. The fact that we’d been outgained in our first two games, and actually doubled up by North Carolina State. But I said it sheepishly, not wanting to be the idiot who didn’t believe.

“The scoreboard is the only place it counts!” people told me.

“You’re absolutely right!” I replied.

But deep down I knew we couldn’t rely on the other team turning the ball over and not capitalizing in the red zone. I knew at some point our “bend but don’t break” defense would break. Sooner or later our lack of creativity in the run game and pathetic run blocking would cost us. Eventually our shortcomings would be laid bare for all of the college football world to see. Last night it all came crashing down.

I don’t have a disappointment meter to measure how bad I feel after a loss and compare them to other losses. All I can tell you is last night was right up there with the most disappointed I’ve been in Gamecock football in a long time. Right up there with Texas A&M, right up there with the Citadel, right up there with 56-7.

I have no one to blame but myself. When you invest in the fool’s gold thinking it’s the real deal, it’s not hard to figure out who the fool is.

Wasted. The Gamecocks came out of the gates like they had something to prove. Jake Bentley hit Deebo Samuel on a 68-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. After a deflating missed extra point, Skai Moore intercepted a Steven Johnson pass to give USC great field position. After gaining five yards in four plays, we missed a field goal. Then Kentucky once again gifted us the ball, turning it over on a fumble. We then lost five yards on two plays before Bentley threw an arm punt interception on third and long.

That was two extra possessions early in the game that could’ve broken the Wildcats’ backs and completely changed their ball-control game plan. Instead those were portents of things to come, as the Gamecocks had FIVE possessions inside the Kentucky 40 that resulted in no points.

Roper dope. Down 14-6, USC stopped Kentucky on their first possession of the second half and then picked up 18 quick yards on their ensuing possession. On second and two from midfield Rico Dowdle picked up one yard, but came out of the game after being shaken up on the play. Kurt Roper, obviously knowing he was going to run the ball to pick up one yard, put in 185-pound AJ Turner instead of 215-pound Ty’Son Williams. Turner was stuffed, creating a fourth and one. Even with a second chance to correct his mistake, Roper kept Turner in for fourth down, essentially ran THE SAME PLAY, and once again Turner was stopped and the ball went over to Kentucky.

To his (sort of) credit, Roper knew we couldn’t pick up a single yard when we needed it, so later in the game he called a modified sweep on fourth and goal from the one on a play that would’ve kept the Gamecocks in the game. The play was possibly horribly designed and definitely horribly blocked, and once again USC didn’t convert.

Those are the obvious blemishes from a terrible offensive game from Roper, but when you look at the entire body of work it was a complete, uncoordinated mess. No run game variety, a limited number of pass plays and you get 13 whole points, which will win you exactly zero SEC games.

Check your milk cartons. Big time running back transfer Ty’Son Williams was expected to be an integral part of the Gamecock run game this year. After a head scratching zero carries in the season opener, he broke out with a team high 14 carries for 78 yards against Missouri. With Dowdle struggling to find running room over the first three games it seemed natural that Williams would get his fair share of carries against the ‘Cats. Instead, another goose egg. Baffling.

Dowdling. Speaking of Dowdle, something seems not right about him so far this season. He looks very tentative and is not running with the same purpose he did last season. I’m wondering if he’s hurt or if the extra weight he added during the offseason is hampering him. He definitely doesn’t look like the same back.

Across the way. Meanwhile, Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran called a beautiful game. The announcers said his plan was to “dink and dunk” until they had an opportunity to take a shot downfield. They never had to take a shot down the field because the dink and dunk worked so well. Despite a patchwork offensive line, Gran kept the Gamecocks off balance with misdirection, screens, and straight up power football when needed. Kurt Roper should pay attention.

Get off the field. South Carolina’s inability to get off the field on third down is becoming a huge problem. Kentucky was 6-for-8 in the first half and finished 9-for-16 last night. Not much can buzzkill your team more than being *this close* to forcing a punt and having the other team convert.

Four-peat. That’s four straight losses to Kentucky. It’s not an accident, it’s not a fluke. Kentucky is currently a better program than South Carolina.

We miss you Elliott Fry. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a larger Bronx cheer at Williams Brice than I did when Alexander Woznick hit the extra point after the Gamecocks’ late touchdown. Being that was the worst placekicking performance in years by USC kickers, it was well deserved.

We miss you HBC. We punted from the Kentucky 38-yard line in the first half. You old-schoolers can talk about field position and momentum and all that crap, but Steve Spurrier would NEVER punt the ball inside the opponent’s 40-yard line. And with our current offense and kicking situations, we need to take our shot every time we have a chance.

Deebo. I went to bed last night thinking Deebo Samuel was out for the season, and woke up this morning to the news he’d be out 5-6 weeks. How in the bloody hell does the head coach announce his best player is out for the season without being completely certain? Who told him to announce that? That was the final straw in what was a terrible day for the USC Athletics Department.

Spurs down. I give the Athletics Department a lot of credit for the changes they’re made over the last year. We’ve certainly made strides in the right direction. But yesterday couldn’t have gone much worse for the USC AD, and it started in August when we announced the “Blackout” for the Kentucky game. Somehow over the course of the last month, along with the Gamecocks’ hot start, this game became a sort of coronation for the rebirth of South Carolina football. Kentucky took notice, and came in with a bad attitude about it and shoved us around the field for three hours. No, the color of our uniforms didn’t cost us the game, but the hype machine made our terrible performance downright embarrassing.

On top of that, you had awful traffic heading to the game, low water pressure in the bathrooms, concession stand lines that moved at a glacial pace, misfiring fire towers at the entrance and the press conference Deebo debacle. We’ve seen better days.

Handshake-gate. There are conflicting reports on what happened with the handshake at the start of the game. Frankly I don’t care who is to blame, when it’s time to stick your hand out and wish the other captains well you freaking do it. To paraphrase Atlanta Falcons special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, “we ain’t good enough to act like an asshole.”

Go Gamecocks, beat La Tech.

 

 

Snap Judgments – 2017 USC @ Missouri

Photo courtesy of The State.

Some quick, barely researched, not fully-formed thoughts from South Carolina’s 31-13 victory over Missouri.

Expectation Management? Nah, we’re good. Two weeks into the season, South Carolina football is 2-0. If you’re being honest, on September 1 I think the vast majority of you would’ve signed up for (and not been terribly upset with) a 1-1 record after two games. The thought of this Gamecock team beating an on-the-rise, senior-laden North Carolina State team at a neutral site, followed by an SEC road win over a high-powered Missouri team, seemed like it might be a bit of a stretch.

But now, admit it, you’re peeking down the schedule a little bit, aren’t you? The next two games at home are definitely winnable. Then you have a tattered and torn Texas A&M squad, followed by an Arkansas team that is searching for its identity. At Tennessee will be a tough one, as will a home date against what appears to be a good, veteran Vandy squad.

What am I suggesting?  I’m suggesting that if things go to form our game in Athens on November 4 could be worth a lot more than lower-tier bowl jockeying. I know, some of you out there right now are thinking “HEY MAN WE NEED TO TAKE IT ONE GAME AT A TIME”. And my reply to that is no, as fans, we don’t. We can look ahead and speculate and talk about match-ups as far down the road as we want. Nothing we say or write as fans is going to impact what happens this week against Kentucky one bit. Now Will Muschamp, HE needs to take it one game at a time, as do all his coaches and players.

We haven’t had a tremendous amount of fun or success as a program the last three years. I personally think we deserve this limited success we’re having right now. And we deserve to think ahead and hope and dream about what this team might be able to do down the road. I realize we’re still in rebuilding mode, with a coach who has been on the job for all of 15 games. But because we somehow still reside in a stinky division where a handful of traditional powers can’t seem to get their act together, we have a shot.

We’re 2-0, have fun and dream big Gamecock fans.

Momentum. Momentum is not a tangible thing. It can’t be measured. But you know it when you see it, and when Drew Lock hit Jason Reese for a 61-yard touchdown to give the Tigers a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter, you knew they had momentum on their side.

You also saw South Carolina reverse that momentum in the span of three plays and 30 seconds of game time. First, Deebo Samuel returned his second kickoff for touchdown in two weeks. Then, freshman Jamyest Williams intercepted his first career pass on the first play of Missouri’s next possession. The very next play Samuel took an end around 25 yards for a 14-10 lead. In all the Gamecocks would outscore the Tigers 31-3 after that early deficit.

Three plays, 30 seconds, 14 points. Momentum.

Lucky 13. Very few people predicted anything short of a shootout Saturday. Most score predictions I saw had both teams in the 30s or 40s, which seemed very reasonable considering Missouri’s explosive offense and porous defense. Even though we lost the yardage battle for the second week in a row, we were able to hold the Tigers to an astounding three points over the last 43 minutes of game time. That’s a real testament to the job T-Rob is doing with this defense.

Lock’d Up. Let’s not get caught up in Drew Lock’s non-SEC numbers any more, shall we?

Mr. Roper. Kurt Roper may have had his best game calling plays for South Carolina on Saturday night.  He was patient and stuck with the run game even though it was getting stuffed early. We also saw more creativity and formations out of the run game as well. After this week I believe more than ever that Roper has a long-term plan for this offense, and it’s evolving nicely. (Yes, even the jet sweep to Hayden Hurst.)

Here’s an excellent breakdown by Ben Breiner from The State of some of the offensive play calling. 

Wild thing. Jake Bentley seems to come out throwing a little wild early in games. He did it again Saturday and missed two touchdown opportunities on the first drive. Maybe before the first drive of the game the coaches should tell him it’s the second quarter already.

Identity crisis. Javon Kinlaw made his presence known Saturday night with two batted passes and one blocked kick. Unfortunately for him he was continually identified as Dante Sawyer. I’m not sure the announcers ever mentioned Kinlaw by name at all. After Kinlaw’s first pass break up, the announcers even told a story about Sawyer and how he played at East Mississippi Junior College of Last Chance U fame, all the while with the camera trained on Kinlaw.

Keep doing your thing big man, we see you.

New number 1? Someone asked after Ty’Son Williams’ breakout performance against Missouri if he would be the new number one tailback. At this point I believe the answer is no, unless Rico Dowdle is banged up. Dowdle has earned his stripes, and while it’s been tough sledding for him so far this year it’s hard to see him being displaced at the first running back to see the field. I do believe we will see the carries split between the two, which will be a good thing, and AJ Turner spelling them on third downs.

Jam, oh jammmmm. As mentioned above, Jam Williams picked up his first pass interception. Which is a good reason to post this masterpiece by @kevroshay:

Go Cocks, whip Kentucky.

Pre-Snap Read – South Carolina @ Missouri

Photo courtesy thestate.com
As South Carolina fans, Missouri is one team you look at on the schedule every year and pretty much think “yeah, that should be a dub”*. And every year the game turns out to be a very even match-up, whether both teams are good, bad, or somewhere in between.

*not a slam on Missouri, I’m willing to bet they think the exact same about us.

Missouri’s football program it not that dissimilar from South Carolina’s: a long history of mediocrity sprinkled with some terrible seasons and some outstanding seasons. Mizzou has a huge advantage over USC in conference championships (15-1), but upon closer inspection all of those titles came before 1970. There are loads of five, six and seven win campaigns for the Tigers, and they’re just as likely to be 8-4 as they are to be 4-8 during any given season. They had a string of 13 consecutive losing seasons from 1984 through 1996, but have won four division titles since 2007 (two in the Big 12 and two in the SEC). That 2007 team was ranked first in the country and tied at halftime of the Big 12 Championship Game with a spot in the BCS Championship Game on the line. Unfortunately for them Oklahoma pulled away in the second half.

Their place in the SEC still feels like a strange fit, but as each year passes we get more used to it. I’d never suggest they don’t belong, because they have proven they do with those two previously mentioned East Division titles.*

*How the hell did those happen again? I mean, I know the East has been down, but come on. USC, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida all look at 2013 and 2014 and just shake their heads at how they let Mizzou somehow three card monte their way to Atlanta.

Missouri entered this year on the heels of back-to-back losing seasons, finishing 5-7 in 2015 and 4-8 last year. Their only conference win in ’15 was over the Gamecocks, and last year’s game was a win by USC, but a little too close for comfort. Since Missouri entered the SEC the Gamecocks lead the series 3-2, but the Tigers won both non-SEC games – the 1979 Hall of Fame Bowl and the 2005 Independence Bowl.

There have been some wild games between the two teams, including that 2005 bowl game (epic fourth quarter collapse by USC), the Miracle in CoMo, and a second epic fourth quarter collapse in a season full of epic fourth quarter collapses by the Gamecocks in 2014. Each team has a relatively comfortable win in the series, but for the most part when these two teams collide you can expect a game that goes down to the final minutes. I don’t expect tomorrow night to be any different.

USC defense vs. Missouri offense. [Breathes heavily into paper bag.] This matchup frightens me. Yes, I know they slaughtered Missouri State, not Ohio State. But Missouri is one of the few teams in the SEC that has the depth and breadth of skill players that are comparable to South Carolina’s. We all know Drew Lock can play. Damarea Crockett is an outstanding tailback, and his backups Ish Witter and Larry Roundtree aren’t too shabby. Both J’Mon Moore and Johnathan Johnson went over 100 yards receiving last week. And they have big, athletic pass-catching tight ends.

Missouri will score points, and probably a lot of them. Lock will get them to the line of scrimmage and snap the ball faster than anyone we will play all year, so we’ll need a lot of guys to play on the defensive side of the ball. That can lead to a lack of continuity and create assignment confusion, particularly with newcomers like Jamyest Williams and Keisan Nixon. We’ll need to create at least three turnovers, and we’ll need a handful of third or fourth down stops, which is something we haven’t been great at in the Muschamp era.

It’s cliché, but we can bend, just don’t break.

USC offense vs. Missouri defense. A lot of our fans are extremely optimistic about how our offense is going to perform against their D. I think we have the potential to score a lot of points tomorrow, but as Connor Tapp pointed out on this week’s TRC Unleashed, Kurt Roper’s offense has a tendency to disappear for long stretches at a time. In the second half last week against NC State, with a chance to make things a lot easier on themselves, the Gamecocks had consecutive scoreless drives of 3 plays, 3 plays, 3 plays, 4 plays and 3 plays. That’s five consecutive possessions with one first down. We have way too many weapons to bog down like that, even against a defense the caliber of NC State.

I expect a lot more out of the run game this week, and a lot more targets for Hayden Hurst and KC Crosby. I keep calling for more variety on offense and I think this is the week we get it. Missouri doesn’t have the talent on defense to get to Jake Bentley, cover our ends and backs on the second level, or cover Deebo and company in the secondary.

The bottom line is we cannot waste possessions. It’s very possible this could be a who-has-the-ball-last kind of game, and if we turn the ball over or fail to hold serve when we’re on offense, we’re likely going to lose. We have to be crisp, don’t fall behind the sticks, don’t turn the ball over and don’t commit major (10-yards plus) penalties.

Special teams. I don’t know jack squat about Missouri’s special teams. I’ll be optimistic and assume they’re below average and we’ll win this phase.

Muschamp vs. Odom. Two defensive gurus having their teams battle it out in the trenches. Just the kind of low-scoring, grind-it-out type of game you would expect. LOLJK.

What’s it all mean. If the Gamecocks can get out of CoMo tomorrow night with a win, that bodes well for our chances in the SEC East. The media bandwagon started to build after our (somewhat) surprising win last week, and an SEC road win would open a lot more eyes to this team. What looked like a 7-5 or 6-6 Gamecock team prior to last week starts to potentially look special with a 2-0 start.  Division favorite Georgia is down a starting quarterback, Florida is a mess, Tennessee is questionable, and Kentucky and Vanderbilt are definitely beatable at home. It’s a long road, but who knows.

My head is telling me we find a way to lose this game due to one of those offensive funks I mentioned above. But my heart wants to hold out hope in 2017 as long as possible, so I’m going to say the USC pulls this one out 45-41.

Go Cocks.

Pre-snap Read – South Carolina vs. North Carolina State 

LET’S GOOOOOOOOO

We had every intention of recording a preseason podcast last night. But due to my lingering extreme tiredness after spending most of Tuesday night and Wednesday morning vomiting my guts up in a Washington, D.C. hotel room, I decided to sleep instead. (You ever been alone and sick in a hotel room 700 miles from home? It is the WORST man. You revert to being a 3-year-old whimpering and crying for mommy to make it all better.) Anyhoo, instead of a podcast here’s a pseudo preview of tomorrow afternoon’s opener against NC State.

Saturday? What is this voodoo about us kicking off our first game on a Saturday anyway? If you wanted one final sign that the Spurrier era is officially over, this is it. The HBC loved being the “first game” of the season and all the attention that came with the Thursday night slot. In Spurrier’s 11 years at the helm we opened on Thursday night nine times.

Will Muschamp? I’m not sure he gives two rips about when the first game is played. I would expect to see us opening on the first Saturday most years from here on out. Either way, we know we’ll either be 1-0 or 0-1 come Sunday morning.

One year ago today. 365 days ago we were opening on the road at Vanderbilt (on a Thursday) with a new head coach and full of piss and vinegar. Based on strong spring game performance (which was basically a game of two-hand touch) we believed it was just a matter of time before Brandon McIlwain took over the starting quarterback job and held onto it for a very long time. We had yet to be introduced to a bevvy of newcomers, including Brian Edwards and DJ Wonnum. It would be several weeks before we were introduced to critical offensive pieces Rico Dowdle and Jake Bentley. And we were hoping against hope that Will Muschamp knew what the hell he was doing after a high-profile faceplant at Florida.

Muschamp has done a fantastic job of transforming the roster over the last 20 months, adding talent and a little depth. The verdict is still out, and the jury will be deliberating a while, but we are definitely in a better position today that we were last year in Nashville.

What we’re excited about:

Jake Bentley. It’s hard to not be excited about a kid with his poise and talent WHO SHOULD STILL BE IN HIGH SCHOOL…oh wait, never mind, that was last year. I dare say that after seven whole college football games, Bentley might be the most NFL-ready quarterback we’ve ever had at South Carolina. No, I don’t mean he’s ready to jump to The League today, but he has the measurables and intangibles that NFL scouts are looking for – size, arm strength, feel for the game, work ethic, and so on. The old saying goes you improve the most between your freshman and sophomore years, and if that’s the case we are all justified in expecting big things from number 19.

Weapons. Bentley has a ton of weapons to work with on the offensive side of the ball. Dowdle and AJ Turner are proven commodities in the backfield, and they’ll be joined by North Carolina transfer Ty’Son Williams, a guy who many believe is the best of the bunch. Much has also been written about our veteran trio of pass catchers, Edwards, Deebo Samuel and Hayden Hurst. These six guys combined have all the skills needed to make something happen with the ball in their hands – power, elusiveness and speed. The only problem? There’s only one ball.

Freshmen – Offense. Even with six guys we know will get touches practically every game, the brothers Smith, OrTre and Shi (I know, they’re not really brothers) have created a lot of buzz in camp. OrTre is a big-bodied receiver who recovered from a broken foot his senior year of high school to participate in Spring practice and make an impression on the coaches. I’m hesitant to compare him to Alshon Jeffery before he ever takes a snap but…oh hell it’s still preseason and I’m not hesitant HE’S THE NEXT ALSHON JEFFERY.

Even though he was a heavily sought-after four-star recruit, Shi has been a bit of a surprise this fall. Muschamp announced him as a starter in a three-receiver set, so he has obviously shown some playmaking ability at practice. I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll try to get him the ball in space a couple of times on Saturday.

Skai. Welcome back number 10.

Other Linebackers – Any of Them. Skai and Bryson Allen-Williams are the dependable anchors of the defense. T.J. Brunson will be the other starter. I’m excited about the freshmen and newcomers we have at the position, but one or more will need to step up to spell the starters and to also give us some experience for the coming years. Davonne Bowen, Sherrod Greene, Eldridge Thompson, Damani Staley – I don’t care who steps up, but somebody has to.

Newcomers/Freshmen – Defense. Javon Kinlaw is a mountain in the middle and will help plug some of those big holes opposing running backs exploited last year. Aaron Sterling and Brad Johnson will hopefully give a shot of energy to what was an anemic pass rush. Keisean Nixon is the type of physical presence we need at the back of the defense.

But the guy on D to watch for is our very own Honey Badger, Jamyest Williams. He brings an attitude and competitiveness to the defense that we haven’t seen since DJ Swearinger. He is relatively small, but is extremely athletic and uses his hips and balance to allow him to match up with just about any receiver. Williams is the kind of guy that forces quarterbacks to make perfect throws.

What we’re concerned about:

The O Line. For our offense to have any success at all we need Jake Bentley to be upright and healthy. He was mostly healthy last year, but he was not upright nearly as much as we would’ve liked. Zack Bailey is a future starter in the NFL, but the rest of the line has a lot to prove. They’ll need to create holes for our backs, which will in turn create time for our quarterback, which will in turn allow Kurt Roper to mix it up with the playbook. The fierce NC State defensive line will be a good litmus test for this group.

The defensive backfield. We have veteran starters in corner Jamarcus King (who we hope has gotten stronger) and safety Chris Lammons (who we hope has learned to not throw punches at guys wearing helmets). There has been a lot of talk about Rashad Fenton possibly becoming the best corner on the team, and D.J. Smith is solid if not spectacular at the other safety position. Williams is a welcome addition at the nickel, but then the depth starts to fall off quite a bit. Jaylin Dickerson and Chris Smith are Freshmen who will miss the season due to injury, and Tavyn Jackson and Stephen Montac have battled injuries are expected to miss time. We cannot afford any more injuries in the back of the D.

Special teams. Lammons will be returning punts, which is a good news/bad news situation. The good news is he has shown flashes of being pretty good at it. The bad news is that’s 4-6 more opportunities for him to get dinged up and take him away from his primary role, as noted above. Kickoff returns I expect to be average to above average, but the kicking game is a hand-wringer at the moment. We still haven’t decided on a field goal kicker to replace Elliott Fry, and will also be trotting out a new punter.

Injuries. They have already taken a toll on our defensive backfield. There are a few positions like running back and defensive line where we could probably take a hit, but for the most part we need our starting 22 to stay as healthy as possible. One place where we cannot, and I mean CANNOT, have an injury is at quarterback. If Bentley goes down for any extended period of time we are blanking blanked.

Misc:

The ‘Pack. NC State is a middling ACC team, much in the way South Carolina has returned to being a middling SEC team. Unfortunately, tomorrow we’ll be catching one of the better Wolfpack teams in recent memory. As previously stated, they have an outstanding defensive line, but could be vulnerable in the back seven if Bentley gets time to throw. On offense, quarterback Ryan Finley is somewhere on the “meh” spectrum, but has excellent weapons on the outside in Jaylen Samuels and Nyheim Hynes. The ‘Pack will also be replacing their excellent tailback from last year, Matthew Dayes.

The Prediction. The final score will be 27-24. I don’t know who’s going to win, that’s why they play the game. But I expect an ultra-competitive, fun football game from the start.

The Season. Funny thing about football, sometimes you can have more talent and a better team, but not gain any ground record-wise over your previous team. I really like the talent on this Gamecock squad. But there is a lot of youth and too many question marks to think we’ll improve very much on our 6-6 regular season from last year, especially with the out of conference schedule as tough as it’s been in quite a while. My head says 6-6, but my heart says 7-5 and maybe a Belk Bowl appearance.

The great thing about today is 15-0 is still a possibility, and by God that’s exciting. Football is here my friends, we look forward to the ride with you.

Go Cocks.

Reports: Kingston to Take the Reins of Gamecock Baseball

(Photo: baseballamerica.com)
Multiple media outlets are now reporting that South Florida’s Mark Kingston will be the next head baseball coach at South Carolina.

My official statement on this hiring:  MEH.

Mark Kingston will be announced at a press conference shortly, and Ray Tanner will sing his praises and call him a great recruiter and motivator. Kingston will give a fiery speech and “win” the press conference, and we’ll all feel a little bit better about not getting Kevin O’Sullivan or Brian O’Connor or even Monte Lee. All those things will happen, guaranteed.

But those things won’t completely cover up the disappointment. The disappointment of Tanner once again missing on his first, second, and maybe even third choices. The disappointment of getting a guy the vast majority of us had never even heard of before two weeks ago.

Think back to everyone’s list of replacements the day after Chad Holbrook was fire…er…resigned. There were at least a dozen names tossed around. Coaches who’ve won conference titles, regionals, super regionals, and College World Series titles. NAME coaches. Coaches who media and fans alike felt like a program like South Carolina wanted and deserved. Look at the words of Ray Tanner himself:

“I believe very strongly that our job here is a top three or top five job in the country so we’ve attracted a lot of really good candidates.”

With all due respect, a top three or top five job in the country shouldn’t be hiring Mark Kingston from South Florida. That’s not a knock on Kingston’s coaching ability and it doesn’t mean I won’t get 100% behind him as he tries to get us back to Omaha. That’s a knock on one of the great Gamecocks of all time, Ray Tanner.

It’s beyond obvious this wasn’t his first choice. If Tanner wanted Kingston from the beginning, he could have had him 30 minutes after the Holbrook resignation press conference. But Tanner had bigger fish in his sight. Fish that were playing well into the postseason, and one fish in particular that won a national championship. But in the end he couldn’t land that fish, and once again we’ve had to settle.

I’m going to be all in on Mark Kingston, as all Gamecocks should be. I’m going to pull for him like crazy, and I hope he succeeds will beyond our wildest dreams. But given the high hopes I had going into this search, it’s going to take me a little time to get used to the idea.

I’m also going to cross my fingers that he doesn’t block us on Twitter.

Go Cocks.

Holbrook Resignation Complicated, But Not That Complicated

(Photo credit: ABC Columbia)

“For a program that measures itself by College World Series appearances and results, not making the 64-team field is unacceptable.” – Josh Kendall, The State, May 29

By every account, Chad Holbrook is a fine man. His son Reece fought and beat cancer, and Holbrook has spent much of his free time raising significant amounts of money to go towards pediatric cancer research. No matter what happens with his baseball career, he will have no accomplishment on the baseball diamond that will top that.

By every account, Chad Holbrook was an outstanding assistant baseball coach. In his 15 seasons at North Carolina the Tar Heels made 11 NCAA tournament appearances and three College World Series trips. As Associate Head Coach at South Carolina, he was instrumental in helping build a team that went to three College World Series’ and won two. When Ray Tanner took the job as South Carolina Athletic Director after the 2012 season, it was a foregone conclusion that Holbrook would take over, and I don’t think Gamecock fans had much of a problem with that. Holbrook had been groomed for many years, it was his time.

In 2013 Holbrook guided the Gamecocks to within a game of another CWS. Oddly, it was in the deciding game of that Super Regional series against his former team, UNC, that we began to see the first chink in his managerial armor. The crime? Sacrificing one of his best hitters, Joey Pankake, in the first inning of that game with no score. (Many will argue they saw issues long before this, but this is the first time I remember recognizing it as a significant flaw in his strategic thinking.)  Regardless, it was a very good season and nobody really complained about missing the CWS for the first time in four years.

In 2014 the Gamecocks shockingly lost to Maryland at home in the NCAA Regionals, with the final game being a 10-1 whitewashing. Again, you run into a hot team at the wrong time in the tournament and bad things happen. There was no need to panic at this point.

In 2015, USC went 13-17 in the SEC and missed the NCAA Tournament altogether. In the day and age of social media, and specifically Twitter, it was now time to panic. This Gamecock program, what we believed to be an elite national program, did not miss the NCAA Tournament. The fringe began to call for Holbrook’s firing, but the moderates among us knew that was not an option after only three years.

The 2016 season was a strange one. The cry for Holbrook’s head grew during the course of the season as, after starting the SEC slate 6-0 against Arkansas and Ole Miss, the team lost weekend series to Vanderbilt, Georgia, Kentucky, and Texas A&M. But sandwiched around those losses were sweeps of mediocre to bad teams Tennessee, Missouri and Alabama. In the end, sweeping five series and not being swept in any resulted in a 20-9 conference finish and first place in the SEC East. That’s great, isn’t it? Call me foolish, but something just didn’t feel right.

As a host in the NCAA Tournament, with Clemson looming as a Super Regional opponent, the Gamecocks lost the opening game to Rhode Island (RHODE ISLAND) to fall into the loser’s bracket. Fortunately, the overall regional draw was extremely weak, and USC breezed past Duke, Rhode Island again, and then UNC Wilmington twice to make it to the Super Regional. Clemson lost their regional, and the Super fell into Columbia’s lap the following weekend. A red-hot Oklahoma State pitching staff rode into town and ended the season for South Carolina.

In my humble opinion, 2016 was fool’s gold for Gamecock fans. A weak bottom of the SEC combined with a fortuitous draw in the NCAA tournament led to the easiest path to a Super Regional we will ever see. Proponents of Chad Holbrook will always say “yeah, but they made a Super you idiot!” I can’t deny that, but look under the covers. There were still problems.

(Side note, SEC Tournament wins for Chad Holbrook to this point: 0.)

I won’t even rehash 2017, because you’ve heard it all. A preseason top five ranking turned into a complete disaster only rivaled by the 2014 football team in Gamecock lore. Players who were expected to take a step forward didn’t. The deep pitching staff was shallow as puddle. And Chad Holbrook continued to make mind-boggling in-game decisions, and even took a shot at our fans in frustration. It literally couldn’t have gone worse. Was all of this Chad Holbrook’s fault? Of course not, but this is life in sports. When things don’t go well, more often than not the head man takes the fall.

So now, after two weeks of back-and-forth about the future of Holbrook, he is gone. Some people will argue that he should still be our head man, but the evidence doesn’t support that. Consider:

Pros

2 Super Regionals

1 Regional

1 First-place SEC East Finish

40 win average

Cons

0 College World Series

2 Missed NCAA Tournaments

4-17-1 in series against top 50 RPI teams (2015-2017)

2 losing records in SEC play

8 straight series losses in SEC play (2017)

3 straight series losses to Clemson

3 SEC Tournament wins in five years (all this year)

2 humiliating blowout losses to UNC

Now look back at the opening quote from Josh Kendall. This was not a difficult decision. And please don’t throw out ridiculous hypotheticals – “so if Chad had made 5 straight Super Regionals should he have been fired?”. Of course not, context matters. And the context of the last five years is simply not good enough.

Finally, about our fans. Aaron Fitt wrote this ridiculous piece about Holbrook and Gamecock fans. First, to say Holbrook was dismissed…er, “resigned”…because the relationship with fans became toxic is an insult to Ray Tanner. All I’ve read about Ray Tanner is how hard he studies the facts of the situation and makes an educated decision based on those facts. The fact is Ray Tanner has higher expectations for this program, just like the fans. That’s why Chad Holbrook is no longer our coach.

And we have high expectations? And we’re spoiled? You’re damn right on both accounts. I can’t defend anyone spewing personal venom towards Holbrook or the players during games or on social media. We frankly don’t need those fans. But the vast majority of Gamecock fans are passionate, loyal, and devote an inordinate amount of time and resources to all our athletic programs, of which baseball is a crown jewel. We’re not going to take a back seat to anyone on the baseball diamond, and we’re not going to keep quiet when we feel a change is needed. No apologies here.

I feel bad for Chad Holbrook, I really do. If you’ve ever lost a job it is horrible feeling, and can scar you for a long time. I wish him nothing but success in the future, and hope he bounces back quickly.

Go Cocks.

 

Gamecocks’ NCAA Futility Washed Away in an Instant

I started watching college basketball when I was seven years old. The first game I can remember was the 1977 NCAA final between North Carolina and Marquette, and I was immediately hooked. It wasn’t March Madness back then, but it wasn’t long after that the moniker took hold.

There seemed to be something magical every year. 1979, Magic beat Bird. 1982, Jordan, a freshman, finally gave Dean Smith a title. 1983, Lorenzo Charles dunked Dereck Whittenburg’s miss. 1985, Villanova plays a perfect game against Georgetown. 1987, Keith Smart’s cold-blooded jumper. 1988, Danny Manning carries undermanned Kansas.

As a child of the 80’s, and a huge sports fan, these games shaped me, and are the reason the NCAA Tournament remains my favorite sporting event. It rarely, if ever, disappoints.

But there has always been something missing – my alma mater.

I didn’t become a South Carolina fan until my freshman year in 1987, but that was still well past USC basketball’s “glory days” during the late 60s and early 70s. I attended games at the old, sterile concrete jungle we called Carolina Coliseum. Back in those days we were an independent in football, but played in the Metro Conference in basketball. That’s right, the Metro Conference.

Our home slate included games against the likes of Florida State, Memphis State, Cincinnati and Virginia Tech. There was better fan support than the team warranted most games, but since you’re more than likely a Gamecock fan reading this that shouldn’t come as a surprise. We had a blast at those games, and we’d get in line early every week when student tickets were distributed.

Some really nice players came through when I was in school, including JoJo English, Joe Rhett, Barry Manning, John Hudson, Terry Dozier and Jamie Watson. We were never really bad, but we were never really good either. We had just enough to give good teams a run for their money, and occasionally not enough to prevent bad losses to inferior teams.

We made the tournament in 1989 and were ousted in the first round by NC State. We then wandered the desert for eight years until the remarkable breakthrough season of 1996-97. We won the SEC title outright and earned a #2 seed in our region. I thought, finally, I get to see MY team make a run in the Big Dance.

Flop.

Then 1997-98 was almost as good. We earned another high seed, #3, and surely we wouldn’t blow this opportu…

Flop.

Six years later we squeezed into the tournament as a #10 seed and were promptly ousted by Memphis.

That was it. Forty-four years without a win in the NCAA Tournament. Only four tournament appearances for me personally as a fan. Two historical faceplants out of those four appearances.

This was Gamecock basketball.

Then two weeks ago, after 13 long years, we secured another one of those elusive bids. We earned a #7 seed in the East Regional, along with defending national champion Villanova and perennial power Duke. We didn’t exactly storm into the tournament, having lost six of our last nine games. Still, the excitement of that bid brought a renewed optimism among the faithful that we would be able to beat Marquette and get the NCAA monkey off our back. We weren’t exactly sure how we were going to do it, but we decided to believe.

As it turns out, we did it the same way we thrashed teams like Michigan and Syracuse in December – suffocating defense. After the first 10 minutes of shaking off nerves, the Gamecocks were pressuring, rotating and flying to the ball in a manner we hadn’t seen in several weeks. They pulled away in the last six minutes to end that blasted tourney drought.

“Good enough for me,” I thought. “This tournament is already a success. With Duke looming, anything more than just this is gravy.” Thank God our team didn’t think that way.

The Blue Devils entered the NCAAs as a favorite after playing their best basketball of the season and winning the ACC tournament championship. The stage was overwhelming early for USC as Duke built a 10-point lead, and carried a 7-point lead into the half. After halftime, we saw what might have been the best 20 minutes of Carolina basketball in my lifetime.

The Gamecocks scored a record 65 points in the second half, the most ever scored against a Mike Krzyzewski team. It was a stunning upset, and is still the upset of the tournament. South Carolina just doesn’t beat a team like Duke in the NCAA Tournament. Hell, until Marquette they quite simply didn’t beat ANYBODY in the NCAA Tournament. After all those years, we were finally part of the Madness. On the good side.

Baylor? Baylor had no chance in the Sweet Sixteen. The Gamecocks mauled the Bears from the get-go, continuing to steamroll over anything in their way. I couldn’t believe this was my team. Our team. Now the national darling of March.

Yesterday, against a familiar and formidable foe, I was finally greedy. I didn’t think for a minute it would be all right to lose to Florida. My only thought was how heartbreaking it would be to get this close – THIS CLOSE – and not make it to the Final Four. I don’t really know how to gauge levels of nervousness, but I’m guessing on a scale of 1 to 10 I was about a 27 for two hours. I was dying as the Gators were draining threes in the first half. Contested, uncontested, banked, it didn’t matter, they were on fire.

I told my son at the half things would even out. Teams that on average shoot 35% from behind the arc don’t typically shoot 58% for an entire game. They’d stop falling, and if they didn’t, you just tip your cap. I said it with confidence, but I’m not sure I believed it.

It was obvious early in the second half the Gamecocks had decided to stop playing around. They were back to being hellhounds on defense. Shots were falling. That second half intensity overwhelmed Florida down the stretch, and they went 0-14 on three-pointers. Only for a brief moment, on a USC turnover and Chris Chiozza layup, did I think it might be slipping away.

When Maik Kotsar drilled a 10-footer with two minutes left – the shot of the game – I started to think it might be coming true. We tried to make it interesting, missing a few free throws down the stretch. But when Chiozza was stripped by PJ Dozier in the final seconds, and Duane Notice slammed home the last points to send South Carolina to the Final Four, all those years of futility and frustration were washed away.

My team, our team, South Carolina, was in the Final Four.

I’m not saying anything here any of you haven’t already thought or said. I don’t have any special words to use to describe what we’ve witnessed. It’s been unbelievable, unreal, surreal, special, spectacular, and on and on. I’ve consumed every article, watched every highlight, video and GIF. I don’t know if a team has ever made me as proud as this Gamecock basketball team. It’s all been so unexpected.

The man responsible is Frank Martin. He wanted out of Kansas State so badly that five years ago he decided to take over a program mired in sub-mediocrity for decades. He had a plan, he implemented his plan, and he asked us to be patient. It hasn’t been easy. When he was suspended a few years ago for an outburst at Duane Notice on the bench, I thought maybe we had seen the last of him. He wasn’t winning, and his brash personality wasn’t sitting well with everyone. But he returned, and as time went by you saw how much his players adored him and how hard they played for him and our university.

I genuinely believe to Frank Martin this journey isn’t about Frank Martin. He cares about the players he coaches like they’re his own family, and he insists they appreciate our university and represent us with respect. He preaches about life, and teaches life lessons through basketball. His players love him and would run through a wall for him. As a matter of fact they’ve been running through walls for him the last two weeks.

On the player side, no one at the University of South Carolina should ever wear the number 0 on a basketball court again. Sindarius Thornwell, like his team, has exceeded expectations beyond our wildest dreams. At the beginning of the year he was maybe a top 10 player in South Carolina history. After an SEC Player of the Year regular season he may have moved near the top 5. After the last two weeks the only names you can put in the same sentence with him are Roche and English. Martin said he likes players with some “dog” in them. Thornwell epitomizes this, guarding guys four and five inches taller than him on the defensive side, then being equally adept at knocking down threes or banging in the paint for an and-1 on offense. He is quite simply a legend.

The supporting cast, absent many nights during the regular season, has been incredible during this run. I could write a paragraph each about Silva, Felder, Kotsar, Notice and the rest of the bench and their contributions. Every night someone else has stepped up their game in a supporting role. The NCAA Tournament has a way of making players elevate their game to meet the moment. Our guys have done that.

Finally, I have to say how proud I am of our fans. New York became Gamecock Central (h/t to Gamecock Central) and it was so much fun to watch you guys take it over. We’ve engaged with many of you over social media and it’s been a blast. It’s definitely great to be a Gamecock.

So let me close this out before it becomes one big “I love you man”.

Regarding the Final Four, if this team didn’t give one more ounce to us fans they’ve still given more than enough. But from what I’ve seen not giving their best is not an option for any single guy on that squad. I expect to see the hellhounds in full force against Gonzaga.

No matter the outcome, this has been one great ride. And more than I ever could have expected.

Go Cocks.

 

Loving and Losing: My 10 Greatest Sports Defeats

5898932a937c9-image“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” – James 1:2-4, The Holy Bible (NASB)

I stood in one spot, arms crossed, practically motionless for roughly 45 minutes. It seemed like a lot longer. Hell, maybe it was, time was irrelevant to me at that point. All I knew the entire time was that I was watching, in relative terms, perhaps the greatest collapse in American sports history.

And it was happening to my team. My team for 40 God-forsaken years. A team that had   one playoff win in its first 25 years of existence. A team that didn’t have back to back winning seasons until its 44th year of existence. A team that had fought past all the crappy history and playoff flops to race to a 28-3 lead over the mighty New England Patriots. They were finally the team all Atlantans had dreamt about – unquestionably the best in pro football.

Until they weren’t.

Slowly, painfully, it unfolded in front of my eyes. I told all the casual fans I was with “it’s over” at least five times over that last 45 minutes. After all, I’m a fan of all the Atlanta franchises, and I’m a fan of the South Carolina Gamecocks. This was old hat to me. I knew the ending long before anyone else.

I watched the confetti fall and saw Belichick hug Brady and that was all I could take. I thanked my hosts for a wonderful evening, got in my truck, and on the way home listened to the Falcons’ incomparable play-by-play man Wes Durham try to make sense of it all. He sounded as if he was describing the aftermath of a natural disaster.

I tried to sleep, but I kept replaying in my mind all the plays the Falcons could have made that would have changed the outcome. Each one felt like someone was punching me. It was almost physically painful. Then at some point I thought – is this the worst? Is this the worst ever? Because it feels like the worst ever. In a sporting life with the disappointments outnumbering the major accomplishments by a ratio of roughly 100 to 1, this really felt like the worst. So as I drove in on Monday morning, I tortured myself by trying to recall something worse, and it simply never arrived.

But it did spur (pun intended) this writing. For fans like me of the Atlanta franchises and the Gamecocks, this will be all too familiar. As fans of other teams you probably don’t give a crap, but hang in there and read along, for this is where my healing begins.

A couple of quick notes here. First, the 1984 Navy game is not included because I didn’t become a Gamecock fan until 1987. There are also a couple of surprises that don’t involve Atlanta or South Carolina. Don’t judge.

So, without further adieu, here are my top 10 sports defeats of all time:

1.Super Bowl LI, February 5, 2017 – Patriots 34, Falcons 28

Maybe in time this one will fall down the list, but I at the moment I really don’t see how. You know what happened, I don’t need to rehash it. The only thing I’ll say is RUN THE DAMN BALL SHANAHAN!

2. NCAA First Round, March 14, 1997 – (15) Coppin State 78, (2) South Carolina 65

The Gamecock basketball team had a magical run in 1996-97, led by the big three of BJ McKie, Melvin Watson and Larry Davis. They blitzed through the SEC slate and won their first and only conference championship, culminated by a stunning upset of Kentucky in Lexington on their senior day. But there was one thing I couldn’t shake heading into the NCAA tournament – how in the world did this team lose to UNC Asheville and Charleston Southern early in the season? That bothered me as a number two seed, that we could possibly play down to the level of our competition in the opening game. Well, Coppin State played out of their minds, and cemented our unfortunate place in the history books.

3. World Series Game 4, October 23, 1996 – Yankees 8, Braves 6

One year earlier, as Marquis Grissom squeezed the final out of the 1995 World Series, Bob Costas declared the Atlanta Braves the “team of the 90s”. They appeared to be on the verge of solidifying their grip on that moniker, with a 6-3 lead in the 8th inning of a game that could’ve given them a commanding 3-1 lead in the 1996 Series. Alas, Mark Wohlers hung a curve ball to Jim Leyritz, who tied the game with a 3-run homer. New York would go on to win that game in extra innings, and the series four games to two. The Yankees then went on to become the ACTUAL team of the 90s, while the Braves went on an unprecedented run of postseason futility . Until Sunday, that game was the most infamous in Atlanta sports history.

4. NCAA First Round, March 12, 1998 – (14) Richmond 62, (3) South Carolina 61

If Coppin State worried me, Richmond terrified me. The Spiders were an NCAA Tournament regular, pulling off the first 15-seed vs. 2-seed upset in the history of the tourney. Unfortunately this Gamecock squad wasn’t quite as good at the ’97 version and once again bowed out in humiliation.

5. College Football, November 18, 2000 – Clemson 16, South Carolina 14

Rod Gardner pushed off, always and forever.

6. NFC Championship, January 21, 2013 – 49ers 28, Falcons 24

The Falcons blew an early 17-o lead and a 24-10 halftime lead, a trend unique to Atlanta. The good news here was I was in the hospital with my newborn daughter, so I watched the game on a tiny hospital TV and was otherwise preoccupied. Still, pretty damn painful.

7. College Football Playoff, January 10, 2017 – Clemson 35, Alabama 31

For those of you who pulled for Clemson in 2016 and/or 2017 I will never understand you. Clemson winning a national title in anything, much less football, is never a good thing for us. Now we have to deal with merchandise, license plates, billboards, etc., until we can do something about it. Which might take a while.

8. College Football, November 23, 2003 – Clemson 63, South Carolina 17 and November 27, 2016 – Clemson 56, South Carolina 7

Basically the same humiliating game 13 years apart.

9. NFC Divisional Playoffs, January 4, 1981 – Cowboys 30, Falcons 27

I really didn’t expect the Falcons to make the list three times when I first started thinking about this, but here we are. I was only 11 at the time, and don’t remember much about it except that I was extremely bummed. This game once again featured the Falcons building a big lead and collapsing at the end. Sound familiar?

10. College Basketball National Championship, March 28, 1977 – Marquette 67, North Carolina 59 and March 30, 1981 – Indiana 63, North Carolina 50

I know this surprises and possibly upsets some of you, but again I remind you I was not a Gamecock fan until 1987. Prior to that, North Carolina basketball was truly my first love. The UNC-Marquette game was the second sporting event I can ever recall watching (the first was Super Bowl XI between the Vikings and Raiders). I loved Dean Smith, I loved the Carolina blue and I decided that night the Tar Heels were my team. Of course they lost.

In ’81 the game between Indiana and UNC was almost postponed because President Reagan had been shot earlier in the afternoon. I remember thinking “looks like he’s going to live, let’s play ball!” (Hey, give me a break, I was a kid.) I got so frustrated with the game I would turn the TV off for 10 minutes at a time hoping that when I turned it back on the Tar Heels would have closed the gap. They never did, and I cried myself to sleep.

North Carolina would break through for their first, and my first, national title in 1982 behind the brilliance of Jordan, Worthy and Perkins. Of course I can’t claim that any longer because I now despise the Tar Heels with every fiber of my being. Was fun at the time, though.

Please, make me feel better and share your toughest defeats in the comments section.

Snap Judgments – 2016 USC @ Clemson Edition

WHEEEEEEEEE!!!!! (Photo: thestate.com)
WHEEEEEEEEE!!!!! (Photo: thestate.com)

Embarrassment. Last week after the Western Carolina game I wrote that we just needed to chalk that game up as an anomaly. It was a bad game before our annual contest against our biggest rival, and surely we were going to pull things together and play a competitive game against Clemson.

Instead, the game against the Catamounts should have set off flashing red lights and sirens all over the place. Our bend but don’t break defense that had experienced extraordinarily good fortune in the red zone for most of the season was gashed by one of the worst teams in the FCS. If we couldn’t get off the field against WCU, what in the world made us think we could against Clemson? Yes, our red zone defense had been stellar for most of the season, mostly due to timely turnovers – some born of good plays by the defense, but some that could be attributed to boneheaded plays by our opponents.

The fact is our coaches never wanted to be a bend-but-don’t-break defense, that’s just the way things played out over the course of the season. I guarantee you Will Muschamp and Travaris Robinson would’ve preferred we stop teams before they ever got over the 50. But we simply weren’t good enough any phase of our defense to stop teams between the twenties, and we had to rely on stopping them once they were faced with a smaller field to work with.

Unfortunately, there was no bowing up, no locking down, and most certainly no luck for the Gamecocks on Saturday night on any part of the field. Clemson was light years better on offense than we were on defense. They were more physical, faster and more talented across the board and it showed more than at perhaps any other time in the history of the rivalry. The game was quite literally over at 14-0, and the Tigers could have scored 80 points if they had felt so inclined.

What about our offense against their defense? It was no better. Our turnstile offensive line was beaten on virtually every play. Our freshman quarterback who couldn’t be rattled was beyond rattled. We couldn’t run, couldn’t pass, and had to resort to a trick play to avoid being shut out.

The 2016 Carolina-Clemson game was the thing of nightmares. It was domination, and it was swift and decisive. It was also a complete and total embarrassment.

NO-ffense. A few years ago I was the offensive coordinator for a youth football team. I remember one game in particular where we were not only not moving the ball, but were losing yardage on practically every play. We had decent skill players, but our offensive line was atrocious. Around the third quarter I starting hearing rumblings of frustration from the fans in the stands, which were right behind us. The rumblings grew louder, until finally I heard…

“COME ON COACH!”

I had literally run ever play in the playbook (granted, they were kids, it wasn’t a very big playbook) and nothing was working. I was helpless.

I remembered this when I saw some folks complaining about Kurt Roper on Saturday night, and I felt kind of bad for him. I could just imagine him sitting in the press box looking at his play sheet wondering what the hell in front of him might work. I know there are plenty of your who think Roper is a bad OC. There are some who think he is a good OC, but doesn’t have the talent (OL specifically) to run his offense at the moment. I lean towards the latter personally, but will admit that may only be wishful thinking.

What I do know is very little of what he had planned for Saturday night had a chance of working. Not because he had a game plan, and not because his guys did know what they were supposed to be doing. It was because they didn’t have the ABILITY to do what needed to be done. They didn’t have the ability to beat the man in front of them. And until we fix that, our offense will always look pedestrian, or worse.

Onward and upward. Last week on our podcast we were asked what could put a damper on this season. Well, a 56-7 loss to our rival has certainly done it for the time being. Our bowl destination, opponent, and a positive outcome in that game could certainly put some salve on the wound, but there is obviously quite a bit of work to be done.

As far as next year, I still think this team can be a contender for the SEC East title, mostly because just about everyone will be a contender for the SEC East title. But seriously, we found a quarterback in Jake Bentley, and skill players in Rico Dowdle, Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards that should make the offense more consistent and more explosive provided the offensive line can improve. On defense we need significant help at defensive end, linebacker and safety, and will hopefully find that in the offseason. I think an 8-4 regular season would not be too much to ask for 2017.

Can we close the gap on Clemson? I certainly think so, mostly because they should come back to the pack a bit next year. Now, some Tiger fan will get a hold of this and tell me about all the talent they have waiting in the wings, which is fine. But they have to replace the best quarterback in school history, who also happens to be the best player in the country and will be a first-round draft pick. They have to replace a first-rounder in Mike Williams and others who will be in the NFL next year including Artavis Scott, Wayne Gallman, Carlos Watkins and Ben Boulware.

The last two seasons have cemented Clemson as a recognized national brand, and that’s something we’ll have to deal with for a while. The best way to deal with it is to recruit better, coach better and play better. All those things are on Will Muschamp, and he has his work cut out for him.

Extracurricular. It really made me sick(er) to wake up on Sunday morning and read about all of the accusations of racial slurs, disrespect, etc. being thrown around. I have mixed feelings about most of it and pretty strong feelings about one specific aspect. So here are my stream of consciousness thoughts:

  • Racial slur by a Clemson player – I’m not sure what to think of this. I find it hard to believe a Clemson player would direct a racial slur at a South Carolina player when the make-up of both rosters is overwhelmingly black. At the same time, it’s an odd accusation to just make up out of thin air. Something happened, but what we’ll probably never know.
  • Racial slur by a Clemson fan – Honestly, would anyone be surprised by this? And I don’t mean because it’s a Clemson fan, I mean because it’s a fan, period. Out of millions of Clemson fans, and millions of South Carolina fans, do you not think there are more than a handful of raging racists on either side? And do you not think those people would throw out a racial epithet if given the opportunity? It’s disgusting, it’s humiliating, and it is unfortunately part of the world in which we live. It’s not a South Carolina or Clemson problem, it’s an everybody problem. And it’s up to you and me to stop it when we see or hear it.
  • Disrespect, Part I – Ah, yes, the “d” word. I get it, nobody likes to have trash talked in their face then they’re getting their asses handed to them. The old man in me is always inclined to say “if you don’t like it then do something about it”. And if you can’t do something about it, don’t whine about it. But on the other hand, sometimes there is a right way and a wrong way to do things, even in the brutal game of football. Which brings me to…

Disrespect, Part II. So here’s what I had a problem with – the curtain call. I’ve seen a lot of curtain calls in my 40 years of being a sports fan, but never one quite as showy at the one at Memorial Stadium on Saturday night. Dabo Swinney took out a lot of his starters in the third quarter, including Watson, Williams and Scott. At that point, up by six touchdowns, it was obvious he was not going to need the services of those guys or his three remaining time outs. It would have been easy to do the curtain call right then and there, and have those same guys run off to the same applause they got later in the game.

Instead, that group sat until late in the fourth quarter. Swinney called time out, and when the Tigers ran back on the field the starters were back in. They stood to rousing applause, waving their arms and gesticulating to the crowd, until the play clock ran down and Swinney called another time out. They then ran off the field to more applause and smiles and hugs.

I’m sure it was humiliating for our guys to have to stand out there for the better part of five minutes and have their noses rubbed in the worst loss of their football careers. At that point all they wanted was for the clock to run out and get the hell out of there. Yes, yes, if you don’t like it, do something about it. But for Dabo Swinney to be such a champion of integrity and respect and doing things the right way, that was one hell of a bush league move.

I have no doubt in my mind Will Muschamp didn’t appreciate that one bit. Hopefully someday he’ll have a chance to do something similar in return, and he’ll pass.

Go Cocks.