Sitting here firmly in the dog days of summer, football fans anxiously await the start of fall practice. In the meantime, we turn to that time honored conversation starter: the list! I have compiled what I view as the list of the most important games in the recent history of the Gamecock football program. See if you agree.
South Carolina joined the SEC in 1992, marking the start of a new era. In the sixteen seasons since, the Gamecocks have played 185 games, and we will identify the most important games of this era. The key word is “important.” This is not a list of the biggest wins, best games, or best plays. Unfortunately, as any Gamecock fan knows, the losses have meant as much, if not more than the wins.
The list is about the games that meant more to the program than a “W” or an “L.” In accordance with the sixteen seasons of SEC play, we have chosen sixteen games, listed in chronological order. Let the debate begin.
1. Carolina 21, Mississippi State 6, (1992) – The Gamecocks had started their first season in the SEC 0-5. Facing a player revolt, Sparky Woods turned to freshman quarterback Steve Taneyhill, who led the Gamecocks to an upset of 15th ranked Mississippi State. Behind Taneyhill, Carolina turned its season around, going 5-1 down the stretch.
2. Carolina 24, Tennessee 23, (1992) – This game is probably the most fondly remembered game from that 5-1 stretch. The Gamecocks secured the upset of the 16th ranked Volunteers when linebacker Hank Campbell tackled Tennessee running back James Stewart shy of the goal line on a two point attempt with less than two minutes to play. It was the first win over Tennessee for Carolina since 1903, and it would be 13 years before they got another one.
3. Carolina 24, West Virginia 21, 1995 Carquest Bowl, (1994) – The Gamecocks have won just four bowl games in their history, and this was the first. Taneyhill was responsible for two touchdowns, tossing one and running for another to lead Carolina to the win.
4. Carolina 31, New Mexico State 0, (2000) – Anytime you break a 21-game losing streak, that game is important. Doing it in convincing fashion makes it even better. The goalposts came down that night, setting the stage for the 2000 season.
5. Carolina 21, Georgia 10, (2000) – The goalposts were toppled for the second straight week, this time as the Gamecocks controlled #9 Georgia throughout and ended the early season Heisman campaign of Bulldog quarterback Quincy Carter. Carolina picked off Carter five times, and Derek Watson rushed for three touchdowns as the Gamecocks put themselves on the map for the season.
6. Florida 41, Carolina 21, (2000) – The SEC East title was on the line in Gainesville. The Gators started the scoring with a field goal, but a pair of blocked punts helped the Gamecocks sprint out to a 21-3 lead after one quarter. Carolina never scored again, and quarterback Jesse Palmer caught fire off the bench to lead Florida to a rout. It was as close as the Gamecocks have ever come to the division crown.
7. Carolina 24, Ohio State 7, 2001 Outback Bowl, (2000) – That map led to Tampa for the Outback Bowl. Behind Ryan Brewer, an Ohio native who was spurned by his home state team, the Gamecocks cruised to an easy win. Brewer was the game MVP, rushing for 109 yards, adding another 92 yards receiving and scoring all three of Carolina’s touchdowns. The win capped off one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the history of college football, as Carolina went from 0-11 to 8-4 in one year.
8. Carolina 37, Alabama 36, (2001) – Alabama led 36-24 with nine minutes left in the game. Quarterback Phil Petty led a furious comeback that saw the Gamecocks take their first lead of the game with 2:18 left. Carolina scored on a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Rod Trafford, the only pass he caught as a Gamecock. It was a landmark victory and the first time Carolina had ever beaten the Crimson Tide.
9. Carolina 31, Ohio State 28, 2002 Outback Bowl, (2001) – It was déjà vu all over again, as the Gamecocks and Buckeyes battled in Tampa for the second straight year. This game was actually more thrilling than the previous one, as Daniel Weaver’s 42-yard field goal as time expired barely crossed the crossbar. Carolina led 28-0 before Ohio State stormed back. The nine wins during the 2001 season are the second most in Carolina history.
10. Clemson 29, Carolina 7, (2004) – Following an embarrassing season-ending loss to Clemson to cap off consecutive disappointing 5-7 seasons, Holtz made significant staff changes. The changes worked, as the Gamecocks were once again bowl eligible. However, bad feelings from the previous season’s blowout led to increased tensions early in the game. Extra shoving throughout the game turned to a sideline clearing brawl in the fourth quarter. The enduring image of the game was Clemson’s Yusef Kelly kicking at the bare head of Carolina’s Woodly Telfort as Telfort lay face down on the ground. The fight, just a day after the brawl between the NBA’s Pacers and Pistons, left a black mark on both programs, which declined bowl invitations.
11. Carolina 16, Tennessee 15, (2005) – The Gamecocks notched their first ever win in Knoxville on Josh Brown’s 49 yard field goal with 2:45 remaining. Steve Spurrier continued his dominance of Tennessee great Peyton Manning. Manning never beat Spurrier in college or the NFL, and the Vols lost again on the night #23 ranked Tennessee retired his jersey.
12. Carolina 30, Florida 22, (2005) – It was the first game between Spurrier and the program he built at his alma mater. The Gamecocks jumped out early and held on to defeat #12 Florida for the first time since 1939. The win also gave Carolina five straight conference wins and secured a second place finish in the SEC East, both program bests.
13. Carolina 31, Clemson 28, (2006) – The win snapped a four game losing streak to the Tigers, but more importantly, it laid the groundwork for a culture change. The Gamecocks took their first lead of this back-and-forth game when Ryan Succop nailed a 35-yard field-goal midway through the fourth quarter. That kick proved to be the winning points, and after the game, Spurrier said he hoped the victory erased “whatever bad things happened to South Carolina football.” Spurrier may have been overstating things a bit, but the win was part of a season-ending three-game winning streak that propelled Carolina toward a top ten recruiting class. That class is expected to make its presence felt this season and in the coming years.
14. Carolina 44, Houston 36, 2006 Liberty Bowl, (2006) – The most recent of the Gamecocks’ four bowl wins saw an offensive shootout. Blake Mitchell threw for 323 yards and tied a Liberty Bowl record with four touchdowns as he won MVP honors.
15. Carolina 38, Kentucky 23, (2007) – It was billed as the biggest home game since the mid-80s. #8 ranked Kentucky visited 11th ranked Carolina in front of a Thursday night ESPN television audience. After a thunderstorm drenched Williams-Brice Stadium right before the game Eric Norwood and the Gamecock defense stole the show and ended Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson’s Heisman campaign. The win catapulted Carolina into the national title picture, if only for a couple of weeks.
16. Vanderbilt 17, Carolina 6, (2007) – The Gamecocks’ season came crashing down against the Commodores. Carolina was ranked #6 in the country, its highest ranking since 1984; Vanderbilt was supposed to put up only a minor challenge. Instead, Carolina came out flat and fell behind early. The Gamecocks never got into the game, and the loss started a season ending five game losing streak that saw USC finish 6-6 and miss out on a bowl game.
This is my take on the sixteen most important games of the SEC era for South Carolina. There are certainly other important games, for better or worse. Which games would you add, and what games would you take out?
To discuss this article, visit The Cockpit, our free forum, or The Golden Spur, our premium forum.