- Travis Haney, ESPN Staff Writer
If you missed it back in January, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier found a few reporters at a hoops game and played a game of his own with them.
"I came across a certain statistical trivia that I wanted to ask you guys," Spurrier said, according to my old newspaper, The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier. "How many teams in the BCS conferences have won 11 or more the last two years? I've got a bonus for you if anybody knows the answer."
Two reporters answered correctly: Alabama. Oregon. Stanford. And the Gamecocks.
Spurrier gave them each a $100 bill. (No word on whether they ultimately kept the Benjamins.)
Think about that. Not the money. Not how goofy of Spurrier. No, think about the accomplishment.
South Carolina is in the company of Bama, which has won three of the past four national titles. Oregon has been to four consecutive BCS games and played (closely) for one title. Stanford has been to three consecutive BCS games and knocked off Oregon last season when it appeared the Ducks were in line for another title berth.
And then we have the Gamecocks, who had never won more than 10 games until two seasons ago and had reached double digits just once, in 1984. This is clearly the high-water mark in the mostly middling history of the program.
But what's the gap between where they are now, and where programs like Alabama, Oregon and Stanford are? What is between South Carolina's current station and taking the next step, to at least the program's first BCS appearance -- if not more?
One SEC assistant thought about it for a few seconds and responded in a way I was not necessarily expecting.
"I don't think there is anything," he said.
<Another admitted that he was nitpicking when he said South Carolina could use a home run-type running back. "But most teams don't have that," he said. (I reminded him Georgia has two.)
He said even when South Carolina had Marcus Lattimore, and when Lattimore was healthy, there was not a back that could go the distance at any time. He said he liked Shon Carson's skill set the most of the Gamecocks' backs, but he was surprised to hear that Carson, a redshirt sophomore who has dealt with a number of injuries, was spending this spring playing baseball.
That first coach said the obvious response even as recently as two seasons ago would have been quarterback and offensive line play. Now, he said (and I agree), the Gamecocks have two quarterbacks they've proved they can win with; the O-line, even though it's still not exactly Wisconsin or Alabama, is no longer a liability.
Connor Shaw first emerged as capable once Spurrier finally cut Stephen Garcia's leash and then Dylan Thompson proved in 2012 to be a viable fill-in when Shaw was banged up.
Shaw finished the 2011 season as one of the more efficient QBs in the country, and he proved it was no fluke last year by finishing 10th in the country with a 158.1 passer rating.
Thompson started last November against Clemson when Shaw had a foot injury, and he led the Gamecocks to an easy win. He finished the season with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions.
Spurrier has said he thinks Thompson has an NFL arm, causing some to believe he'll platoon the pair. And Spurrier does love his QB tandems. In some instances, it has endangered the psyches of one or both quarterbacks; Shaw and Thompson are both older, confident QBs, so no one's expecting them to be rattled if that's the direction Spurrier goes.
As for the O-line, the last time I spoke with South Carolina line coach Shawn Elliott he was pleased to enter a spring with some experience. Last season, he had to find starters at each tackle and broke in a first-year starter at guard. They all return this fall. He will have to replace veteran center T.J. Johnson, but he's fired up about the attitude and toughness that redshirt freshman Cody Waldrop is demonstrating.
South Carolina was in Atlanta for the SEC title game two seasons ago, but hasn't made it back since despite beating East rep Georgia in each of those years. The results have been more circumstantial than positional, according to those close to the program, echoing what that rival assistant said.
One circumstance is scheduling. Last season, the Gamecocks played No. 5 Georgia, at No. 9 LSU and at No. 2 Florida in consecutive weeks. Would any team in the country have survived that?
One staffer told me he saw a team that got a little overinflated after the 35-7 dismantling of Georgia. The players, as a result, were not fully prepared for LSU (23-21 loss) and then they made a slew of mistakes the following week against the Gators, who scored 44 points despite just 183 total yards.
That staffer told me he thought the Gamecocks were better in terms of personnel than both of those teams -- I'd agree, if they were playing on neutral fields and not on consecutive weeks -- and he said they would have beaten the Tigers "eight of 10 times." You'll recall that Clemson, a team South Carolina had just blistered, knocked off LSU on a neutral field.
This season, South Carolina gets a break on the schedule. There's no Alabama, LSU or Texas A&M. It does have to go to Georgia, but it gets Florida and Clemson at home.
The Gamecocks, though, had better be wary of the Aug. 31 opener against North Carolina. Now out from under the NCAA's cloud of doom, you know second-year coach Larry Fedora would love to get a signature win against Spurrier.
I doubt Spurrier would give him $100 for that.
Here are a few others knocking on the door of elite status ...
Clearly, Florida State has spent time among the nation's elite. But much of the recent conversation, at least since Bobby Bowden's epic-but-eventually-stagnant tenure ended, has revolved around the Seminoles' return to prominence.
Defense had been an issue even before Jimbo Fisher took over, and that trend continued. The Seminoles gave up 5.7 yards per play from 2009-10, 83rd in FBS. Mark Stoops arrived, and that stat went to 4 yards per play -- second in FBS. Injuries were problematic for the offense, particularly the line, but there were few excuses last season for an inexplicable loss at North Carolina State when FSU had controlled the first three quarters.
The Seminoles did win the ACC, but an Orange Bowl win against outmanned Northern Illinois does not portend that your program is "back."
It'll be interesting to see what happens to the defense now that Stoops is at Kentucky. Offensive coordinator James Coley left for Miami, too. This could be a telling season for the trajectory of the program under Fisher.
Georgia has been to three BCS games under Mark Richt, but none since 2007. That isn't enough for some fans, though at least the Bulldogs missed the title game by merely a few yards last season.
Those I talked to thought Georgia had fewer personnel deficiencies than South Carolina, mostly because of who the Bulldogs are bringing in.
"Recruiting, year in and year out, there's no comparison," an SEC assistant said. "That isn't South Carolina's fault, or anyone's fault. There are few teams in the country that can pull players like Georgia can, because of where they are."
It wasn't because of built-in recruiting, but Arkansas was close under Bobby Petrino. But that shows you how quickly things can regress. Defense was prohibitive even when Petrino had it going; it's the reason a gap remained between the Hogs and the top two in the division. It's purely hypothetical, but Texas A&M would have overtaken even a Petrino-coached Arkansas team, right?
I watched the Spartans in their opener against Boise State and I saw a Rose Bowl-caliber defense and an offense that I believed would improve with time. The new QB would settle in. The receivers would develop.
The defense did play well (4.4 yards per play, fifth in FBS), but the offense never came around (4.8 yards per play, 110th in FBS), and a Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win wasn't what anyone -- including me -- had in mind back in August.
Offensive coordinator Dan Roushar left for the NFL, so Jim Bollman and Dave Warner will split the offensive duties. Perhaps new blood will get the offense caught back up with the defense, and get the Spartans back on track for a BCS bid.