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June 9, 2014

In perspective: 2013-14 Football

In life and in sports, perspective is a beautiful thing. With the 2013-14 University of South Carolina athletic season in the books, this week we'll take a bit of a fun look at what it all meant.

Today, we tackle football, so let's have some fun!

PLEASANT SURPRISES: For the Gamecocks on the gridiron, there were several. First, Mike Davis showed that he was more than able to not only match the production of Marcus Lattimore, but in many cases surpass it with an explosiveness and big-play ability not seen in Columbia for decades. Had nagging injuries not taken their toll on him, exacerbated by the injury to primary backup Brandon Wilds, he might've run for 1,500 yards. As it was, he totaled 1,214, which is more than Lattimore ever had in a single season.

Another complete surprise was the emergence of kicker Elliott Fry. I think it's not unreasonable to say that if Fry had flopped, USC might have a new special teams coach, so much was riding on the performance of that position. He was everything the Gamecocks needed and more, going 15-of-18 on field goal attempts, none bigger than his 40-yard field goal at Missouri in what turned out to be the game-winner, one of three victories USC notched over teams ranked in the final AP Top 10.

Other pleasant surprises included two freshmen, linebacker Skai Moore and wide receiver/kick returner/Wildcat quarterback Pharoh Cooper. All Moore did was lead the team in tackles and interceptions, while Cooper displayed am uncanny ability to make big plays as a returner who got better as the year went on and as a Wildcat quarterback who simply could not be prevented from making positive yardage.

CRUSHING DISAPPOINTMENTS: There's only one, and one that will be forever remembered as the catalyst of a thousand "What Ifs" - the Tennessee loss on Oct. 19. No one will ever be able to explain how an offense coming off a 52-point road performance at Arkansas and averaging 34.5 points per game could be so stifled, stuffed and shut down by a team so inept as the Volunteers, who finished 5-7 and won only one other SEC game (Kentucky 2-10, 0-8).

Tennessee was terrible, and there's no point arguing that. For the Gamecocks, quarterback Connor Shaw gave the worst performance of an otherwise stellar senior year. Against the Vols, Shaw was 7-for-21 passing for a 33 percent completion rate and just 161 yards and had both of South Carolina's turnovers, an interception and a fumble. Davis, on the other hand, finished with a terrific 137 yards on 21 carries, and there are more than a few who would argue he didn't get the ball enough while the Gamecocks stumbled to just seven first-half points.

Still, USC's defense stiffened late and the offense clawed its way back to take a 21-20 lead in the fourth quarter before succumbing to a fluke Hail Mary that led to a chip-shot, game-winning field goal that in hindsight prevented USC from playing in Atlanta and possibly for the national championship.

BEST MEMORY: There are two here, really: Missouri and Clemson. First, the Missouri win was a legitimate, can't-take-anything-away-from-it, win over a top-five team on the road. It was a magnificent comeback performance from a team left for dead and a quarterback in Shaw left for dead so sick and injured he shouldn't have even dressed for the game, much less played. His gutsy performance was nothing short of heroic, and the memories of that double-overtime victory will last a lifetime.

Also, lasting a lifetime will be the historic fifth win in a row over a Clemson team that finished No. 8 in the polls and had just one other loss. Among the highlights there were sending Tajh Boyd on to the pros winless against the Gamecocks and fourth overall NFL Draft pick Sammy Watkins to the Buffalo Bills having never crossed the goal line against USC.

LASTING LEGACY: Simple - the third straight 11-win season, third straight New Year's Day bowl appearance and win over a storied Big Ten program and, of course, historic fifth straight win against Dabo Swinney's Tigers. The three-year period now underway marks the greatest period of success in school history, a legacy that can never be taken away and that has absolutely changed the culture of USC football both in Columbia, through the Upstate, across the SEC and outward to the nation.

The Gamecocks never have finished higher in the polls than this year's No. 4 finish, and projections of another top-10 finish are plentiful as they begin rolling in from the various summer publications.

For now, however, the memories of 2013-14 are to be savored, cherished, relished for all they are worth, because though it's often been said, it has truly never, ever been a better time to be a Gamecock.



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