It’s football season.
Last season did not go very well for Carolina, but this season was supposed to be different.
The offense has a new, highly anticipated running back from the Upstate who was Mr. Football in high school. The first game was scheduled away from home against a beatable North Carolina-based state university that plays in the ACC. The defense has talent. New uniforms. The opener is nationally televised on ESPN on the Saturday before Labor Day. But the win slips through our fingers, and the Gamecocks start the season 0-1 and leave their fans searching for answers. Looking down the schedule, the harder games are still to come.
And, a hurricane is threatening the coast of both Carolinas.
Think I am talking about 2019?
I’m talking about 1999.
Watson, not Feaster. NC State, not UNC. Dennis, not Dorian. And in ways, 2019 is not only similar but worse than that debacle.
If truth be told, I originally planned to write this as a twentieth anniversary post to show how far the Gamecocks have come since they lost all 11 football games they played in 1999 (my senior year of college in Columbia).
But then we laid an egg against a team being coached by a grandfather who was out of coaching for 5+ years, a team with a first time starter quarterback who graduated high school 3 months ago (he also has a mother, in case you didn't know that after the broadcast where they cut to her about 75 times), a team playing its former starting quarterback at linebacker, a team that lost a starting cornerback (out of an already weak secondary) for the game in the first quarter, a team that went 2-9 last year (would have been 2-10 if the UCF game didn't get cancelled), a team that came into the game having lost 20 of its last 22 games against Power 5 teams, a team that has been leading so few times at the end of the game that they literally do not know how to run out the clock.
Yesterday’s loss to UNC changed everything.
In 1999 on the morning after I woke up in a room on a fraternity hall. Today I woke up in a house where I live with my wife and children. My life is objectively better, so why do I feel worse about the state of the program?
College football is a great equalizer where we come from. It transcends race, gender, class, creed. You may hate everything else about your life, but if you are a Clemson fan right now you will probably call it even. On the other hand, even if everything else in your life is going great you definitely cracked an extra beer or three yesterday if you are a Gamecock. How your team is doing comes up at least daily in conversation for months, besting “the weather” for go to small talk. The anticipation and afterglow (or wound licking) are measurable, but it’s not instant gratification. It takes time to be successful, and there are no shortcuts. In fact trying shortcuts just causes even more delay. This makes it very satisfying . . . or very aggravating.
Even still, why compare 2019 and 1999? Yesterday’s loss was only one game and it’s a long season. We have a solid roster and there is no chance we will go winless this year.
Maybe it’s because it has been a bumpy summer at Carolina. But I think the real reason is that in 1999, we knew it could not get any worse.
We had gone 1-10 in 1998, with our only win coming over Ball State. We were throttled by double digit margins that year by Georgia, Mississippi State (a 38-0 home beatdown on Jefferson Pilot that began with them running the kick back and went way way downhill from there), Arkansas, Tennessee, and Florida. We ended the season on a 10 game losing streak, the program’s longest in 100+ years of playing ball.
We had nowhere to go but up. We fired the coach, and hired a proven winner. We knew it would take time to turn it around but there were baby steps forward. Derek Watson was a coveted running back recruit that made an instant impact, and two other solid running backs who had been Mr. Football (Ryan Brewer from Ohio and Andrew Pinnock from Connecticut) were also on campus. We had a young but promising quarterback. The defense was loaded with NFL talent - first rounder John Abraham, second rounders Sheldon Brown and Kalimba Edwards, third rounder Andre Goodman, fifth rounder Arturo Freeman, sixth rounder Langston Moore. UDFA Cleveland Pinkney also played in the league.
And - critically - Clemson sucked too, having gone 3-8 in 1998. They tore down the goalposts in “The Valley” that year after beating us when we were 1-9, in a game that featured a combined three wins on the season and was being coached by two dead men walking (Tommy West had already been fired, while Brad Scott would be fired days later). And yet, the game was sold out as both fan bases were on equal footing.
Things started to get better, in a Dow Jones-esque see-saw that ultimately made forward progress - back to back New Year’s Day bowl wins, 63-17 and Holtz leaving, hiring Spurrier, several wins against Alabama/Florida/Tennessee, the Papa John’s Bowl loss, an SEC divisional championship, multiple 10 win seasons, great players on campus (Lattimore, Clowney, Gilmore, Shaw, Jeffrey, etc. etc.). Nothing crazy, but very respectable with the occasional chance for something special. And - critically - we had Clemson’s number, beating them 5 straight.
Then Spurrier quit on the team half-way through 2015 and thrust us back to the depths. We lost to The Citadel that year. Clemson kept chugging along and by 2016 was in a position to beat us 56-7 just three years after their fifth consecutive loss.
The old joke is that for the Gamecocks it is always about next year. I am not going to sit here and say this was supposed to be The Year. But supposedly we have been doing pretty well in recruiting since Muschamp arrived, our facilities are improved, and our head coach has been consistently *glowing* in his comments about this year’s team. We returned a senior quarterback that has started 30+ games and threw for over 500 yards and 5 TDs on the 2018 national champions at their place. We have the aforementioned running back. The O line is laden with upperclassmen, and the defense is supposed to at least look the part. Our hype videos, since that is supposedly how you reach the new generation, are lit as the kids say. On fleek, even. Yes we have the hardest schedule in the nation but our boys are up for the challenge; at the very least we were supposed to be about middle of the conference. In the run up to this week’s game you might even say Muschamp was cocky about our chances.
And now here we are. Spectacularly failing to move past an embarrassing shutout bowl loss to end last season. Staring down the loaded barrel of a bad season, starting with an ugly loss to a bad team in one of the few games we were definitely supposed to win. We didn’t manage expectations coming into the game, and we didn’t manage the game. In the post-game yesterday Mack Brown said “we tried to screw it up, and we couldn’t even screw it up.” That . . . is not a compliment.
Now the question is what next. We had plenty of chances to win yesterday but could not capitalize. Things can definitely get worse. Without changes, things will get worse.
The hard schedule this year is hard again next year - instead of #2 Alabama at home we get #6 LSU on the road. Joy.
After three seasons and the opener of season 4, Brad Scott was 18-16-1 overall and 10-13-1 in the conference, with 1 of those victories coming over a ranked team, 1 bowl win, and 2 wins over Clemson. After three seasons and the opener of season 4, Will Muschamp is 22-18 overall and 12-12 in the conference, with 1 of those victories coming over a ranked team and 1 bowl win. Will Muschamp is still looking for his first win over Clemson.
That might be awhile, if it ever comes. Clemson has won two national championships (or, as people who are trying to fit in call them, “nattys”) in three years and just hung 52 on Georgia Tech to start their title defense. They have climbed the ladder over the last 10 years, losing just 4 ACC games in the last 48 played. We have lost each of the last 4 ACC games we have played.
We have alternated ladders and chutes, and now it feels like we are Ralphie holding on to the top of the slide as Santa raises his boot. Which means introductory press conferences. Which means “rebuilding”. Which means calls for "renewed enthusiasm" and a "change in culture." Which means Clemson stays even further ahead, and that means The Trophy will stay at Brandt’s house for yet another year. And that is what hurts the most. Adding insult to injury is that Brad Scott is in the Clemson administration, while the man he took over for (Sparky Woods) works for UNC. You just can't make it up.
So, if you are a Gamecock fan, breathe and hope.
Dum Spiro Spero. But mostly Spero.