Much on the line for Gamecocks in Tampa

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Clemson

Prior to last fall, South Carolina had never won 11 games in a single season and compiled just four bowl victories in 12 tries all-time.

Ten wins during the 1984 “Black Magic” season under Joe Morrison was as good as it got other than an ACC Championship 15 years prior. In 2010, under the direction of fab freshman Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina won its first-ever SEC East crown but couldn’t crack double-digit wins with losses to Auburn and Florida State in the final two games.

The futile postseason past seemed to reverse course in Orlando at the Capital One Bowl last January. Head coach Steve Spurrier danced a jig following his post-game Gatorade bath against Nebraska and grabbed a mic to thank fans who made the trip and witnessed history. The players received special rings commemorating the record-setting performance and the campaign was etched in Gamecock lore as one of the best season in the program’s 119-year lifespan.

It’s difficult to recreate that sense of worth experienced in Orlando and unless you’re from the Palmetto State — or consider BCS games as the only bowls that ‘matter’ — you might not feel the impact of what’s happening again.

Call it garnet and black deja vu.

Central Florida has been home to three of the Gamecocks’ five all-time bowl wins and could host another monumental victory on Jan. 1 should South Carolina beat Michigan in the Outback. A win would likely lock the Gamecocks into next season’s preseason Top 10 and would slide the program into a final 10 spot in this year’s AP poll for the second straight season.

For his efforts in transforming the Gamecocks from non-factor to force in the SEC East, Spurrier recently signed a two-year contract extension through 2017. Four straight wins over Clemson — by some fans’ estimation Spurrier’s greatest feat — certainly sped up the agreement. As someone succinctly greeted me after practice, “these are the golden years of South Carolina football.”

The historically-mediocre and inconsistent program has been on the rise since Lattimore signed the dotted line has produced a school-record 30 wins over that three-year span. Back-to-back Top 10 losses to Florida and LSU in October this fall ultimately deflated what some thought could be a BCS year, but another 11-win season ending with a win in Tampa would be one of high merit and keeps the Gamecocks in the forefront of the SEC’s elite heading into next fall.

This year’s senior class is the most successful in school history and will go out with a bang says safety DJ Swearinger. Several key components of the 2010 East Division Champion team are playing their final games including center TJ Johnson, tailback Kenny Miles and defensive end Devin Taylor. Junior quarterback Connor Shaw is back and will start after re-aggravating a shoulder in the home finale against Wofford. Dylan Thompson (910 yards, 8 TD, 2 INT), Shaw’s replacement against Clemson, carved up the Tigers in Death Valley and should also play in the first half.

For those that thought it couldn’t get any better than 2011 for the Gamecocks, it has. Another New Year’s Day bowl victory and final spot in the polls alongside the nation’s elite brings “why not us” to another level for next season.

Photo Credit: Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

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