By Rixon Lane
Three months ago, South Carolina was a top-ten team and the general pick to represent the SEC East in this weekend's conference championship game.
Today, the Gamecocks are a 6-6 team and a general pick to play represent the SEC in the Tax Slayer or Birmingham Bowl.
Things went so wrong so quickly for South Carolina that the question must be asked; was this the most disappointing season in Gamecock football history?
Obviously, disappointment is subjective and depends on different factors for different individuals. However, when you compare the disastrous 2014 campaign to other candidates, the argument isn't difficult to make.
South Carolina was fresh off its first ever 10-win season, but the Gamecocks limped to a 5-6 mark in '85. While the poor encore was disappointing, the fact remains that a 10-2 season in 1984 caught everyone by surprise. The Gamecocks squeaked by several mediocre teams that year and everything fell into place to create a magical season. Replicating that success was not necessarily expected.
Joe Morrison's final campaign in Columbia was one of the most puzzling ever. South Carolina opened the season 6-0, but did not show the dominance that had been on display for parts of their 8-4 season the previous year. Ranked #6 in the country, the Gamecocks were blasted 34-0 by Georgia Tech, a team that hadn't beaten a Division I squad in 15 attempts, and South Carolina finished the year 8-4. The year was certainly not what fans expected, but did mark the school's first back-to-back eight-win seasons.
Once again, South Carolina vaulted to #6 in the polls following a 6-1 start. The Gamecocks then dropped 17-6 decision at home to Vanderbilt, starting a five-game losing streak. South Carolina missed out on a bowl for the first time in Steve Spurrier's tenure. While the late-season swoon was disappointing, the Gamecocks played over their heads while racking up six wins in their first seven games and were, from a talent standpoint, closer to a 6-6 team than a top-ten team.
Which brings us to 2014.
Despite sputtering over the final month, South Carolina's offense will go down as, statistically, one of the best in school history. Dylan Thompson threw for more yards than any Gamecock quarterback in a single season and Pharoh Cooper put together one of the best years ever for a South Carolina wide receiver. However, dark-horse Heisman candidate Mike Davis never became the game-changing back that people expected him to be and South Carolina's offensive line, hailed in the preseason as one of the best in college football, underperformed all year. Play-calling, whether from Steve Spurrier or not, was baffling at times and clock management continued to be a sore spot.
On the defensive side of the ball, coaches raved that the 2014 unit would be one of the school's best, despite losing five starters to the NFL. Instead, South Carolina's defense was chewed up and spit out by nearly every above-average offense it faced. At least three different opponents set school records against the Gamecocks and South Carolina's woeful tackling in the opener against Texas A&M never improved against decent competition. The Gamecocks had one of the most inept pass rushes in all of college football and made fewer tackles behind the line of scrimmage than almost any "Power Five" team.
Issues that were glossed over during South Carolina's 33-6 run came to light this season and changes will be coming. However, no matter what happens to a staff that woefully underprepared this team time and time again, the fact of the matter is this.
South Carolina isn't reloading. It's rebuilding.
No matter what fans may have hoped for, the Gamecocks are not in a place where they can plug in new players and keep rolling along. That is crystal clear after what can only be called the most disappointing season in the history of Gamecock football.
And it's not over yet.