TAMPA, Fla. — On Jan. 2, 2010, South Carolina concluded its 2009 season with a miserable performance in a bowl game that few people who weren’t there probably knew even existed.
It was 27 degrees that afternoon at Legion Field, a decrepit, 71,000-seat stadium in Birmingham, Ala. There were at least 25,000 unoccupied seats. It was just as well for the Gamecocks, who bungled their way through a 20-7 loss to Connecticut, a basketball school, in a game named not only for a chain pizza company, but the website of that chain pizza company.
A position of prominence in the college football world seemed a distant dream for the Gamecocks as coach Steve Spurrier used his press conference to offer sympathies to those who just witnessed the mess his team just made of that bowl game, their fifth loss in seven outings since mid-October, all by at least 10 points.
“The first thing I want 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.
Spurrier had just finished his fifth season at USC. His records were 7-5, 8-5, 6-6, 7-6 and 7-6. A legend of his sport, Spurrier was 64 years old on that frigid day in Birmingham. He surely knew he didn’t need to stick around coaching for games like this.
But things were starting to change for the Gamecocks. They had landed cornerback Stephon Gilmore in the recruiting class of 2009 — the first of four straight South Carolina Mr. Footballs they would get. Gilmore was followed in 2010 by running back Marcus Lattimore, who ended his career earlier this month as one of the best and most impactful players in school history.
In the three years since the Gamecocks’ disastrous trip to Birmingham, they are 9-5, 11-2 and now 10-2 and ranked No. 11 nationally entering today’s 1 p.m. Outback Bowl against No. 19 Michigan. In 2009, they played in the Southeastern Conference championship game for the first time. Last year, they finished with their most wins and best ranking ever — ninth.
Before this three-year run, the Gamecocks won nine-plus games in a season twice, 1984 and 2001. They did not register on the national college football landscape. Now, they clearly do.
And they have what every elite program needs: star power to match their success. With Lattimore turning pro, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is now the face of the program, and the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
USC does not need to beat Michigan today to legitimize its accomplishments during the past three seasons. Even if the Gamecocks do beat the Wolverines, they would still not be a consistently elite program on par with Notre Dame, Southern California, Alabama and Michigan, the winningest team in college football history.
But they would almost certainly finish in the top 10 for the second straight season, and continue to carve out their own history. And they care about that far more than just beating a program, Michigan, that claims 11 national championships, but just one since 1948.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t know nothing about that history,” Clowney said. “We’re in this time. I’m worried about this year. I don’t care about the history.”
Said fifth-year senior tailback Kenny Miles: “They’ve got a lot of history behind their program, and we don’t have as much, but at the end of the day, it’s about the team that they have now and the team that we have now. The teams in the past are the teams in the past. They ain’t got nothing to do with now.”
For the third straight year, USC’s seniors set the school record for wins in a four-year period. The 2011 seniors had 34 — five better than the 2010 group. This year’s seniors are aiming for victory No. 38 today.
“We kind of started a trend for Carolina football being competitive, being a threat on everyone’s game list, not just one of those run-over teams,” said senior defensive end Devin Taylor. “That’s kind of what we want to be remembered for.”
Spurrier, already USC’s winningest football coach ever, will be 68 years old when next season begins. Though he has long demonstrated the zest of a younger man, he seems especially energized by this recent success, and leading a program that can continue its rise today.
“It’s the game to make history,” said senior free safety D.J. Swearinger. “When a lot of us came here, we said we were going to be great here. We were going to win SEC championships. That didn’t happen, but we made history here. That’s something that we wanted to do when we all committed.”