Rome Is Burning

This is not meant to be overreaction, clickbait or smoking hot take. 

This is a cold, startling reality that has been taking shape for over a year.

Eleven seasons after it started, the Steve Spurrier Era has come full circle. 

Just two years ago, South Carolina was in its golden age. The Gamecocks were not simply a team that got hot and put together an improbable season, but a program that strung together three consecutive 11-win seasons. The national spotlight was constantly on Columbia, as South Carolina was ranked in every single poll from 2011-13. The Gamecocks never fell out of the top-20 in three years, climbed as high as No. 3 in 2012 and finished 2013 as the No. 4 team in America. 

Then things changed. 

Yes, the Gamecocks lost the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft and the winningest quarterback in school history, but even with such big departures, the fall shouldn't have been so fast. Just over one month into the 2014 season, South Carolina was unranked, .500 in the SEC and in the midst of a four-game losing streak to FBS opponents. A team that surrendered 400-plus yards of offense just nine times from 2011-13 has seen opponents top that number nine times in the last 15 games. An offense that averaged 34 points per game in 2013 hasn't scored 28 points in its last five contests against "Power Five" opponents.

On Saturday night, in front of a raucous, sellout crowd at Williams-Brice Stadium, the South Carolina Gamecocks lost to the Kentucky Wildcats for the second consecutive year. Kentucky hadn't won a road game in five years. Since 2012, Kentucky has only won three conference games and two have come against the Gamecocks. The Wildcats held South Carolina to one offensive touchdown for the first three and a half quarters and gained over 300 yards in the first half. The Gamecocks trailed by 17 points at halftime and never led after the first quarter. Over the last 15 games, South Carolina is 8-7 overall and 3-6 in conference play.

There is no simple answer to what turned South Carolina back into the mid-2000s version of the team, but, make no mistake about it, that's where the program is. The Gamecocks are back to where they began before Spurrier's arrival, a program barely staying afloat on the seas of mediocrity under Lou Holtz. A roster that has playmakers, but not enough depth or consistency to challenge the cream of the SEC. South Carolina has seen its golden age come and go and has nothing to show for it. 

No SEC titles. One division championship. No BCS appearances. One fanbase scratching its collective head. 

I will admit; I was dead wrong about what this team could do this season. Before the year, I said that the Gamecocks would go 8-4 if 1) Connor Mitch played like a capable SEC starter; 2) South Carolina's offensive line stayed healthy; 3) the new defense was as improved as people expected, and; 4) Steve Spurrier showed a willingness to ride his running backs to victory. So far, South Carolina is 1-for-4. Mitch looked nowhere near ready to lead the Gamecocks, the defense has been gashed in the first halves of both games this season and, when touchdowns were most needed on Saturday, Steve Spurrier took the ball out of Brandon Wilds' hands. 

Several seasons of recruiting misses are showing up between the lines. Four-star recruits like Sheldon Royster, Shaq Roland, Jody Fuller, Na'Ty Rodgers and Wesley Green have not panned out. South Carolina has a former walk-on in the starting wide receiver rotation, a former walk-on taking over as the starting quarterback and a graduate transfer as the leading tackler in the secondary. 

This season will not be the tale of a good team that was derailed by an injury to the quarterback. The Gamecocks were not going to be contending for a New Year's Bowl with Connor Mitch as the starter. South Carolina is not a team that can pin any troubles this season on injuries. Now, it is a program that is exactly what it appears to be on the field. 

Things could get historically bad this season.

Let's assume South Carolina does not upset Georgia in Athens and falls to 0-2 in the SEC for the first time since 2008. The Gamecocks still have to play Missouri, LSU, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Florida. Of those six teams, South Carolina may only be better than Vanderbilt and Florida and the Gators are always tough. There is a distinct possibility that the Gamecocks could go 1-7 in the SEC this season, which would be their worst conference record since 1999. 

Of course, there are those who still remain hopeful after the second half of Saturday's game, when South Carolina's defense allowed no points and forced three-and-outs for the entire third quarter, while the offense put up 15 points and was driving for a potential game-winning touchdown in the closing minutes. However, those accomplishments came against a Kentucky team that surrendered 33 points to Louisiana-Lafayette and nearly choked away a win against the Ragin' Cajuns seven days earlier. Against a Kentucky team whose talent level does not even approach Georgia or LSU or Clemson. For the second year in a row, the Gamecocks went toe-to-toe with an average football team and lost. They simply lost in a different fashion this time. 

I will not pretend to be smart enough to say what the solutions are, but something has to be done. South Carolina's talent level has dipped significantly, the team doesn't have enough depth at key positions and the coaching staff does not appear willing to play to this team's strengths. At the moment, South Carolina looks an awful lot like a 5-7 football team. Even worse, the Gamecocks look like a 5-7 program. 

Those who are touting the program's record over the past five seasons or pointing out the greatness of those 2011-13 teams are fooling themselves. Those 11-win seasons are gone and they don't appear to be coming back anytime soon. The 2011, 2012 or 2013 Gamecock teams would crush this year's outfit and that's alarming. 

I am not writing this to upset anyone who pulls for South Carolina or to anger those who care greatly about the Gamecock football program. I'm writing this because South Carolina football is so incredibly important to so many people. 

There are plenty of people who will not get flustered over the outcomes of South Carolina's football games. Good for them. There are people who are and will be incredibly frustrated by what the Gamecock football program has become. That's fine, too. But people who refuse to acknowledge what has happened and what is happening to South Carolina football should open their eyes.

Rome is burning.

Stop fiddling.