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August 22, 2013

Top 15 football games since 1998

To celebrate GamecockCentral.com's 15th Anniversary, we're putting together some fun lists of "Top 15" things -- players, coaches, events, etc -- that Gamecock Central was there to either help cover, celebrate or just plain commiserate.

Today's installment is the Top-15 Gamecock football games since 1998:

1. Nov. 13, 2010 at Florida (W 36-14): Not only is this the biggest victory of the past 15 years, but perhaps school history as well. The convincing win in front of a national TV audience and stunned pro-Gator crowd at The Swamp (you could make the argument long-suffering Gamecock fans were equally stunned by the outcome) secured USC's first trip to the SEC championship game by clinching the Eastern Division crown in the winner-take-all game. In addition, the win marked USC's first-ever success at The Swamp, the nickname given the stadium by Steve Spurrier 20 years ago. The game added to the legend of Marcus Lattimore, who rushed 40 times for a career-high 212 yards and three touchdowns. The fact USC was crushed by Auburn less than a month later in the SEC championship game in Atlanta doesn't diminish the magnitude of that night in Gainesville when the Gamecocks grew by leaps and bounds, wiping away years of frustration and mediocrity.

2. Oct. 9, 2010 v. Alabama (W 35-21): Only once in school history have the Gamecocks beaten the top-ranked team in the country and this was it. The Crimson Tide arrived at Williams-Brice riding high atop the polls and were viewed as invincible. But, spurred on by a boisterous crowd at Williams-Brice, the Gamecocks were flawless on both sides of the ball. Stephen Garcia played the game of his life, completing 17-of-20 passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns. Lattimore looked like a senior by powering through the solid Tide defense for 93 yards on 23 carries. Alshon Jeffery's reputation grew with seven receptions for 127 yards, including a spectacular grab along the sidelines right in front of Tide coach Nick Saban. The USC defense limited Mark Ingram (then the reigning Heisman Trophy winner), Trent Richardson and the vaunted Alabama running game to 36 yards on 29 attempts. Spurrier said it best after the emotional win: "I think that this game was meant to be."

3. Four-game winning streak against Clemson (2009-12): Before the current winning streak over the rival Tigers, the last time USC beat Clemson four years in a row occurred in 1951-54. Never have the Gamecocks (and Clemson since 1934-40) won five in a row, so history could be made at Williams-Brice in late November when USC and Clemson meet for the 110th time. The Gamecocks have seen plenty of heroes over the past four years - some likely (Clowney with 4.5 sacks last year) and some unlikely (Dylan Thompson in 2012). Not only has USC dominated the rivalry in recent years, they've won all four games by double digits, including a convincing 21-point win over the Tigers in 2011 (34-13). The breakthrough 2009 win snapped a stretch in which USC had lost 10 of the previous 12 meetings dating back to 1997. Many people close to the USC program consider that win as the foremost step forward for Spurrier.

4. January 1, 2001 v. Ohio State (W 24-7): Lou Holtz and the Gamecocks capped off one of the greatest turnaround seasons in NCAA history with one of the most memorable bowl performances ever. Troy, Ohio, native Ryan Brewer haunted his home state university (he was barely recruited by Ohio State despite winning "Mr. Football" honors), and helped accelerate the demise of John Cooper as Buckeyes head coach, by rushing for 109 yards, catching three passing, scoring three touchdowns, earning MVP honors. It was just the second bowl win ever for the Gamecocks and marked the first of back-to-back wins over the Buckeyes in Tampa. A year later, USC nipped Ohio State, 31-28, on a field goal by Daniel Weaver at the buzzer.

5. Oct. 6, 2012 v. Georgia (W 35-7): A decade ago, beating the Bulldogs by four touchdowns would have been unthinkable. But, like the upset over No. 1 Alabama in 2010, everything fell perfectly in place for the Gamecocks on national TV (ESPN's top crew of Brent Musberger and Kirk Herbstreit was in the house) and ESPN's College Game Day crew was in town for the festivities. USC jumped out to a 21-0 lead within 10 minutes and then let the defense led by Clowney take control. Georgia didn't score until less than two minutes remained in the contest. Has Williams-Brice ever been louder than when Ace Sanders returned a punt 70 yards for a touchdown? If so, those occasions are few and far between.

6. Jan. 1, 2013 v. Michigan (W 33-28) and Jan. 1, 2012 v. Nebraska (W 30-13): The exciting win in Tampa nearly eight months ago over the Wolverines will forever be remembered for "The Hit," which has been played over and over on ESPN about a billion times and is credited/blamed for the rise of the "Cult of Clowney." But there was much more to the game than a single play. The game swung back and forth for 60 minutes until Thompson bravely stepped up in the pocket (he was belted by a blitzing Michigan linebacker a millisecond after releasing the pass) and lofted the winning touchdown pass to Bruce Ellington with 11 seconds remaining. A year earlier in Orlando, the Gamecocks dominated the final three quarters in the Capital One Bowl win over the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The momentum changed when Alshon Jeffery reached skyward and snared a Hail Mary pass for a touchdown on the final play of the first half. Even today, Spurrier will tell you the wins over the Wolverines and Cornhuskers are two of his favorite wins of his lengthy coaching career.

7. Oct. 29, 2005 at Tennessee (W 16-15): Even though the last five seasons have not been kind to the Vols, Tennessee still ranked among the elite programs in the country when USC made its biannual trip to Knoxville in Spurrier's first season as USC's head coach. The Gamecocks had never won in Knoxville and had lost 12 straight meetings with Tennessee until Josh Brown stepped up and booted an improbable 49-yard field goal with 2:45 left in the fourth quarter for the winning points. The hex broken, USC has won five of the last eight contests against Tennessee, including three in a row. Spurrier talked about making history when he accepted the USC job, and this win marked the first sign the program was headed in the right direction. "God is smiling on the Gamecocks," an elated Spurrier crowed in the cramped post-game interview room.

8. Nov. 25, 2006 at Clemson (W 31-28): Another of the big wins in Spurrier's early years as USC head coach. The Gamecocks had lost four in a row against the Tigers, including a frustrating 13-9 setback in 2005 when the defense couldn't hold a late lead. Clemson jumped out to a 28-14 lead before USC scored the final 17 points on a pair of touchdown runs by Mike Davis (the first one), a key Clemson turnover and a 35-yard field goal by Ryan Succop. The Tigers looked on the verge on stealing a last-minute win when they drove to the USC 12, but a perfectly timed blitz drove them back 10 yards and Jad Dean missed a 39-yard field goal wide left on the final snap of the game. "Hopefully, whatever bad things happened to South Carolina football may be erased today," Spurrier said afterwards. Eventually, those words would ring true.

9. Sept. 11, 2010 v. Georgia (W 17-6): Popular running back Marcus Lattimore was signed by USC to run the football, and this game, his second in a Gamecock uniform, is fondly remembered as his coming out party. Lattimore propelled himself onto the national stage for the first (but hardly the last) time by rushing 37 times for 182 yards and two touchdowns as USC physically dominated the Bulldogs, jumpstarting their current three-game winning streak in the series. In the final minutes, after spearheading a game-clinching field goal drive (he carried the ball on eight of the 11 time-consuming plays), Lattimore was showered by fans chanting his name. USC ran the inside zone to perfection all afternoon long as it continually pounded away at the Georgia defense with 52 rushing attempts.

10. Sept. 9, 2000 v. Georgia (W 21-10): Entrenched in the top 10, Georgia arrived at Williams-Brice Stadium with national championship ambitions and Quincy Carter's name was popping up on Heisman Trophy lists. Three hours later, the Bulldogs left Columbia with their collective tails between their legs as USC pulled off the first huge upset of the Lou Holtz Era. Carter threw five interceptions as the Charlie Strong-led defense confused him all afternoon long with various alignments that he hadn't seen on film. Derek Watson's two touchdown runs in the first quarter were all USC needed as defense dominated the day. Carter finished 10-of-24 for 108 yards and Georgia mustered just 94 yards on the ground. When the season ended, Jim Donnan was fired as UGA coach and many people pointed to this game as the culprit.

11. Nov. 12, 2005 v. Florida (W 30-22): Another historic win in Spurrier's up-and-down first season. Until this point, USC had lost a staggering 14 straight games to the Gators, and last prevailed in the series in 1939. This matchup was emotional for Spurrier because it marked the first time he had coached against the Gators since leaving Gainesville after the 2001 season following a highly successful 12-year reign as head coach. Mike Davis and Daccus Turman both ran for two touchdowns. Sidney Rice, though, came up with perhaps the biggest play of the game when he caught a short pass from Blake Mitchell, spun free from two Florida defenders and raced gain 64 yards to the UF 1. Davis scored on the next play to give the Gamecocks a 27-19 lead.

12. Sept. 24, 2009 v. Ole Miss (W 16-10)): USC had been 1-31 against top-five foes in school history when Houston Nutt and the fourth-ranked Rebels (their highest ranking in nearly four decades) showed up in Columbia for a Thursday night affair on ESPN. But Eric Norwood and the USC dominated Ole Miss, shutting down quarterback Jevon Snead (Spurrier voted him preseason first-team SEC quarterback before changing to Tim Tebow when controversy erupted at SEC Media Days) and the Rebels offense. Snead finished 7-of-21 for 107 yards as his Heisman Trophy chances evaporated. Norwood terrorized the Ole Miss offensive line with 10 tackles, two sacks and two quarterback hurries. He was in Snead's face all night long.

13. Sept. 23, 2000 v. Mississippi State (W 23-19): Erik Kimrey carved a place in USC football lore with one of the most famous touchdown throws in school history. Telling Holtz, 'I can throw the fade coach,' Kimrey was quickly inserted into the game on fourth-and-10 from the MSU 25-yard line when Phil Petty came up limping with an ankle injury on the previous play. Kimrey took the shotgun snap and lofted a perfect fade pass towards the left sideline for Jermale Kelly, who ran under the ball and caught it at the goal line to give USC a 20-19 lead, sending Williams-Brice Stadium into a frenzy. The Gamecocks later added a field goal to extend its season-opening winning streak to four games. Kimrey's rousing game-winning pass is now known simply as "The Fade." He has carried on the legacy to a successful high school coaching career.

14. Oct. 4, 2007 v. Kentucky (W 38-23): The Wildcats came to Columbia flying high under head coach Rich Brooks as UK was ranked in the top 10. Norwood tied an NCAA mark with two touchdowns on fumble returns as the Gamecocks extended their winning streak over Kentucky to eight games. Wildcats quarterback Andre Woodson finished 23-of-40 for 227 yards, but was sacked three times. In the third quarter, Woodson's lateral attempt to fullback John Conner was muffed, and Norwood grabbed the loose football and ran 53 yards for his second score and a 24-10 lead for USC.

15. Sept. 2, 2000 v. New Mexico State (W 31-0): Typically, a victory over New Mexico State wouldn't end up on a list such as this one, but this was no ordinary win for USC. The Gamecocks snapped a 21-game losing streak with the shutout victory. One week later, USC stunned Georgia and the rest is history. How emotional was the win over NMSU? Gamecock fans tore the goal posts down afterwards. Andrew Pinnock scored on a pair of touchdown runs and Watson had a one-yard run as the Gamecocks ended two years of misery. The last win had come Sept. 5, 1998, against Ball State in the season opener. Holtz's first year at USC was an 0-11 disaster in 1999 until the Gamecocks finally put a "W" on the board against the Aggies. In many ways, the program hasn't looked back since that night, although it has endured some rocky moments along the way.

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