SEC 360: Pigskin and Palmettoes: Alabama, South Carolina and an Ode to the Stephen Garcias of the World
The next stop on Alabama’s “Revenge Tour” is Columbia, South Carolina, against the only team in the SEC upon which it has yet to administer revenge.
That’s right, kids. The University of South Carolina.
That’s because, in 2010, Nick Saban marched his confident, unsuspecting troops into the maw of Williams-Brice Stadium where a misery whip was waiting for them in the form of Stephen Garcia and Alshon Jeffery.
Garcia, who, previous to the game, was a virtual avatar of all other Gamecock quarterbacks not named Steve Taneyhill, suddenly turned surgical that early October afternoon, connecting on 17-of-20 passes for 201 yards and 3 touchdowns — and those by 13:52 left in the second quarter.
Before Alabama could say “cockfight,” it was already clawed and gored. Aiding and abetting Garcia’s felonious offense against the Tide was the leggy Jeffery, who hauled in 7 catches for 127 yards and 2 TDs, and running back Marcus Lattimore, who bulldozed for 93 yards and 2 scores of his own.
The final tally? Gamecocks 35-21.
In a tussle between two legends, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier had gotten the best of Saban and sent word to the rest of the SEC that he could still coach. Garcia looked more like he’d reprised the role of Andy Garcia in any of the following cinematic films: The Godfather: Part III; The Untouchables; or Ocean’s Eleven, swashbuckling all over the field and knocking off No. 1 and the defending national champion as if an annoying gnat was on his shoulder.
It was the first time Alabama had lost since the 2008 season.
After the loss to the Gamecocks, Alabama fans were stunned and discombobulated, mostly because the Tide’s utter dominance against Florida at home the week previous had created the fateful illusion that South Carolina, comparatively, would be somewhat of a breeze. What drew red-faced embarrassment was the method in which Spurrier, Garcia and Co. did it: by whipping Alabama in the trenches and hanging 35 big ones on the scoreboard. Not to mention South Carolina’s defense stifled the tandem of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, holding the vaunted runners to a total of 64 yards.
It proved to be the quintessential “trap game” scenario, the twist of scheduling fate that just so happened to benefit Spurrier, because, let’s face it, that 9-5 South Carolina team does not beat that 10-3 Alabama any other week of the year.
In the end, though, it was all about Garcia. “Stephen Garcia played the game of his life,” the head ball coach surmised.
Garcia’s day was a statement to the Average Joe’s of the World, the middle-of-the-pack runners, the “C” students, that said, “Hey, for one day, you can be spectacular.” After all, the scouting report on Garcia was that he was more likely to get in a barroom brawl than torch Alabama’s defense the way he did that crisp afternoon in the Palmetto State.
The New York Times tabbed the game — a home win against the No. 1 team in the country — the greatest victory in the history of South Carolina’s program. With the win, the Gamecocks had extinguished a forest fire that had been raging for 19 consecutive games. It answered Sports Illustrated writer Austin Murphy’s question, the one he posed on the cover after Alabama’s victory over Texas in Pasadena — “Can anyone stop Alabama?”
South Carolina can. By Garcia, South Carolina can.
Now, since I am a bit of an amateur historian, let’s think more broadly for a minute. How many “Stephen Garcia” moments have occurred for current SEC teams in the history of their programs? You know, when, for one shining moment, a normally ordinary player turns in an extraordinary performance?
Let’s take a look at a few:
Ben Leard and Ronney Daniels (1999) – Auburn vs. No. 14 Georgia
In 1999, Auburn quarterback Ben Leard set a school record by throwing for 416 yards as the unranked Tigers throttled the Bulldogs 38-21 in Athens, Ga. Leard’s favorite target was Ronney Daniels, who scooped 9 passes out of the sky for 249 yards. Daniels, who had one good season before petering out in 2000, scored on a 78-yard reception and a 59-yard reception to help the Tigers to victory.
Roland Sales (Jan. 2, 1978) – No. 6 Arkansas vs. No. 2 Oklahoma (Orange Bowl)
Lou Holtz wasn’t budging. Though he was criticized for suspending a pair of running backs, Ben Cowins and Donny Bobo, before the Orange Bowl against Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma Sooners, prognosticators giving Holtz’s team a snowball’s chance in Miami of winning, Holtz was adamant. In Cowins’ place, Holtz inserted little-known Roland Sales, who only set an Orange Bowl record by knifing open the Sooners with 205 yards on the ground en route to a 31-6 Razorbacks victory.
Reggie McNeal (2002) – Texas A&M vs. No. 1 Oklahoma
When undefeated and top-ranked Oklahoma marched into College Station in 2002, chances were Sooners coach Bob Stoops hadn’t game planned for Reggie McNeal. And chances were Aggies coach R.C. Slocum didn’t expect his backup QB to step in and have a career afternoon against an 8-0 squad that had been causing nothing but bedlam in the Big 12 Conference since Stoops’ arrival in Norman. But the signal-caller from Lufkin, Texas, was 8-for-13 on the day for 191 yards and 4 touchdowns. “After that first touchdown, I felt this was the night,” McNeal said after the game.
Chris Leak (Jan. 7, 2007) – No. 2 Florida vs. No. 1 Ohio State (BCS National Championship)
You almost hate to put a national championship quarterback in this type of discussion, but for former Florida QB Chris Leak, the 2006 BCS National Championship game versus Ohio State was a bit of an outlier. You feel less bad about making him a part of this list when you ask yourself, “Who are the greatest handful of quarterbacks in Florida history?” and you don’t tick off Leak’s name on your short list. But the fact is, Florida has had 3 Heisman winners play the position, so Leak tends to get overlooked despite being the program’s leader in career passing yards.
Regardless of your emotional status at the present time, Leak turned in an exceptional performance that night, going 25-for-36 for 213 yards and 1 touchdown. Florida had its second national title and Leak had redemption, for only 2 months prior, he had been greeted at home by The Swamp’s boo birds.
Tony Temple (Jan. 1, 2008) – No. 7 Missouri vs. No. 25 Arkansas (Cotton Bowl)
Heisman Trophy finalist Chase Daniel was struggling in his hometown. It wasn’t his day, and he needed someone — anyone — to bail him out. Help, for Daniel, came in the form of Tony Temple. A good runner but not a threat to make All-America, Temple had given no recent indication he was cooking up a career day, one that would end in 281 yards rushing and 4 touchdowns (the previous game, Temple had rushed for only 26 yards on 13 carries). Temple’s performance, which outshined that of Arkansas’ stallion-like duo of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, propelled Mizzou to a 38-7 victory. His 281 yards rushing and 4 touchdowns remain Cotton Bowl records.
Jacob Hester (2007) — No. 1 LSU vs. No. 9 Florida
Search the annals of Bengal Tiger lore and you’ll find the name Jacob Hester permanently imprinted. For 3 years from 2004-06, Hester was a middling SEC running back, but whatever potion Hester drank on the night of Oct. 6, 2007, seemed to produce, as Electric Light Orchestra once crooned, “Strange Magic.” Hester romped for 106 soul-shaking yards and the go-ahead score with 1 minute left to give No. 1 LSU the victory over a defending national champion team that was helmed by Urban Meyer and quarterbacked by Tim Tebow. Les Miles, looking like Amarillo Slim, called “go for it” on 5 4th-down plays and was successful in all 5, Hester being Miles’ preference when the kettle was boiling.
Billy Ratliff (1998) – No. 1 Tennessee vs. No. 10 Arkansas
One of the most iconic plays of 1990s SEC football occurred in the Tennessee-Arkansas game in 1998 when Razorback quarterback Clint Stoerner went bumblin’, stumblin’ and coughed up the rock. The perpetrator of the forward push that caused the fumble and of the fumble recovery itself was Tennesee’s Billy Ratliff.
Let me set this up a little better.
Both teams arrived in Knoxville 8-0, Tennessee sitting atop the AP poll and Arkansas at No. 10. Ratliff had been physically manhandled all game by offensive lineman Brandon Burlsworth, but in the waning moments Ratliff had a breakthrough. After telling Vols quarterback Tee Martin “keep your helmet on …we’ll be right back” Ratliff went insane.
First, he stuffed the Arkansas running back for a 2-yard loss. Then with 1:47 remaining, Arkansas leading 24-22, Ratliff knocked Burlsworth into Stoerner and had the presence of mind to pounce on the ball. The kicker: Ratliff wasn’t even supposed to be in the game. Martin and halfback Travis Henry then promptly marched the Vols down for the winning score and Tennessee went on to capture its first national title since the 1950s.
David Smith (1988) – Alabama vs. Army (Sun Bowl)
Alabama’s version of a “1-Hit Wonder” was quarterback David Smith, who morphed into Joe Montana for one day in late December 1988. In sunny El Paso, Smith pitched the brown pill around and connected on 33-of-52 passes for 412 yards. Smith’s performance set a new Bama passing record for yards in a bowl game and punctuated a year that could have been. Smith only threw for 1,983 yards in his career, but for one glorious moment beneath the rocky hills of west Texas, he was terrific.
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So what will happen Saturday? Can Gamecocks starter Ryan Hilinski channel his inner Stephen Garcia and pull off the unthinkable? Or will Alabama continue its Revenge Tour without a hiccup?
Saban stressed in a recent press conference that his players were only babes when Garcia pulled off the monumental upset. But if the adage “revenge is a dish best served cold” is applied, there’s no doubt Saban will bring 9 years of frozen angst with him when he returns to Williams-Brice this Saturday.