Florida State's Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Jameis Winston wasn't squinting towards the sidelines to read the play calls during the first half of last night's BCS Championship game, as college football fans have become accustomed to seeing on the television screen. His eyes were wide open. The mature redshirt freshman was in shock over the relentless pass rush that Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson sent flying through the Seminoles' offensive line play after play. Winston was sacked several times, forced out of the pocket, and baited into errant throws by all white uniforms that were flashing at him from all angles.
But the cool, calm, and collective leader of the nation's #1 team kept his confidence, and rallied college football's most talented squad from a 21-10 halftime deficit to capture the national championship in the final seconds. A perfectly placed toss to leaping 6-5 receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the middle of the end zone with 13 seconds left, lifted Florida State to an epic 34-31 win.
With the way Winston persevered and distributed accurate throws all over the gridiron in the 2nd half to march his teammates to victory, you have to agree with Jimbo Fisher saying, "This was without a doubt his best overall game of the season". A long list of players can put up big stats, but a select few can complete historical comebacks on the biggest stage.
With the usual, dramatic and unpredictable finish to another college football season that found Auburn in the title game, who was winless in the SEC just a year ago, also found South Carolina finishing at #4 in the country with two losses. It's fun, and painful, to imagine what the Gamecocks could have done.
Sure, a handful of college football teams have legit arguments and reasons for why their respective teams fell just shy of earning their spot in the final BCS Championship game. But perhaps no team can look back over a season and kick themselves about what could have been, like South Carolina. A diving one-armed cradle catch down the sidelines in Knoxville, Tennessee that a true freshman wide receiver hauled in from a quarterback who Jadeveon Clowney said had his eyes closed upon releasing the deep fade, shattered the Gamecock's title hopes. On that same eerie, overcast mid-October afternoon, Connor Shaw threw his only interception of the season in his worst performance as a Gamecock. Many South Carolina faithful who were old enough to experience the agony of the one-loss 1984 regular season, with the lone defeat occurring on the road at The Naval Academy, must share similar thoughts some 30 years later.
It was on a blistering hot afternoon down in Athens, Georgia during the second game of the season when the Gamecocks' weakness was clearly exposed by a freight train named Todd Gurley. South Carolina simply did not have a big enough body amongst its linebacking corps that could prevent Gurley from moving forward. As soon as this was so vividly apparent by Mike Bobo and the Georgia coaching staff, a balanced offensive attack from the Bulldogs kept South Carolina uncertain and vulnerable all day long, leading to a 41-30 defeat.
As much as Gamecock fans want to ride the coaching staff for not having a sizable and talented middle linebacker such as Jasper Brinkley, you have to first look at how much the game has changed in just one year, and then give Spurrier's staff credit. Although there is no excuse in not having a bigger presence in the interior of a leading SEC defense, the Gamecocks saw extremely solid production in the past from hybrid linebacker/safeties in the likes of former defensive standouts and NFL players Antonio Allen and Devonte Holloman. Unfortunately, a current player on the roster was unable to grow into that role physically or mentally, and there is no question it hurt the Gamecocks against physical offensive lines and running backs. Will the talented, play-making freshman Skai Moore add 15-20 pounds in the off season and become an interior force, or will a new name step up and answer the call?
In preparations for next year and the future of Carolina football, the coaching staff is extremely excited about the recruiting class they have so far, with 6-1 215 pound linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams, 6-3 240 pound defensive end Dante Sawyer, 6-0 240 fullback/linebacker Joe Blue, and 6-3 305 pound JUCO transfer defensive tackle Abu Lamin as the headliners. With impressive offers from a number of college football's top programs, these kids expect to arrive in Columbia ready to compete for early playing time. In addition to these current commitments, Dexter Wideman is a highly sought after defensive line prospect and Florida State commit, who is among a handful of kids that Gamecock coaches still feel good about getting on board.
And although not always landing the highest rated "team recruiting ranking" amongst recruiting services the past several years, South Carolina has done a tremendous job of recruiting to their needs and consistently increasing talented depth. The Gamecocks claim wins over six bowl winning teams this year, including BCS winners Central Florida, and of course, arch rival Clemson, whom the Gamecocks have handled convincingly for five straight years despite often not having a higher "team recruiting ranking" than Dabo Swinney's Tigers.