Entering Saturday's game at LSU, fans of the South Carolina Gamecocks had every reason to think that they could be heading for one of those "special" seasons that teams in the nation's toughest conference have.
The SEC has produced a National Champion each of the last six seasons. For fans of the Gamecocks, heading into Death Valley last Saturday was a great chance to solidify their place atop the world of college football.
After a dominating performance over Georgia—who many consider to be perhaps the most balanced team in the SEC outside of Alabama—Carolina seemed ready to continue their dominance against the inferior offense of LSU, which struggled mightily against the Gators the week before.
However, the Gamecocks struggled to get off the field early, as they allowed the Tigers, who had converted just one third down against Florida, converted on six of their first seven third downs. Despite that success, the Gamecocks were able to keep LSU out of the end zone and they left the field in the first half leading 7-3.
While LSU was converting their third downs, South Carolina was not, going just 3-of-13 for the game. In their first loss of 2011, the Gamecocks allowed a painfully inept Auburn team to control the ball for 92 plays and rush for 246 yards while converting just two of 10 third downs.
The same thing happened Saturday at LSU.
Thanks to Carolina's inability to sustain drives, the Tigers ran 78 plays, exhausting the Gamecocks defense. LSU scored 13 points in the final quarter—three of their last four possessions—and held the ball for over 36 minutes of the game.
As the Gamecocks head to Florida on Saturday, a season that was on the brink of greatness is now 60 minutes away from destruction.
Awaiting Carolina is undefeated Florida. While fans of the Gamecocks were talking SEC Championship game and a shot at a National Championship heading into LSU, they are quivering in fear for what a loss to Florida would mean.
I have a friend who, when talking about the New York Jets and their inability to get back to the Super Bowl, has a very simple theory.
"Losers lose," he says. Simply put.
For their history, the Gamecocks have been losers. Whenever they have had the chance to become winners, they have fallen flat on their face.
A loss would put the Gamecocks at 6-2 overall and 4-2 in the SEC. Hardly something to sneeze at in the SEC, but Florida would need to lose their remaining two games to Georgia and Missouri, while Georgia would need to lose to either Kentucky, Ole Miss or Auburn for Carolina to have a chance at winning the SEC East.
The chance of those things happening is not very high, which makes Saturday "do or die" for Steve Spurrier and his crew.
Carolina, who were talked about as possible challengers to Alabama for the SEC crown after their win over Georgia, will be no better off than a mid-level ACC team if they fail to come through at the Swamp. The Gamecocks will be no better off than Clemson, their hated rival.
For fans of the Gamecocks, this would be the ultimate slap in the face.
This might be the only chance they have to see Carolina in another SEC Championship game for a while. Devin Taylor, DeVonte Holloman and Steve Swearinger are gone after this season. Who knows if Marcus Lattimore will return for his senior season? Jadeveon Clowney is certainly gone after next season and who knows how many more seasons Carolina can keep defeating Georgia?
Carolina has won 11 straight and 13 of 14 against SEC East opponents since 2010 (they actually blew a 28-10 halftime lead in that only loss at Kentucky in 2010). However, they are just 2-6 against the SEC West, which is why they did not win the SEC East last season.
Part of the blame last season should go to the schedule-makers, who escorted the Bulldogs to an SEC title, as they did not have to play any of the top three teams in the SEC West (Alabama, LSU or Arkansas), while Carolina and Florida both did.
That allowed Georgia—despite losing to South Carolina at home—to win the SEC East with a 7-1 conference record. Georgia once again has received many blessings from the schedule-maker this season as—unlike Carolina and Florida—they don't have to play LSU or Alabama.
Fans can groan and whine about the schedule as much as they want.
Perhaps soon the SEC will go with an idea that divisional conference record should determine who wins: This would legitimize the winner since all teams would play the same teams. However, when one team plays a powerhouse and the other basically gets a bye, it does the SEC an injustice because the best team isn't representing their division in the SEC title game.
Despite the lopsided schedule that favors Georgia, Carolina has no excuse if they fail to finally end seasons of ineptitude.
Fans of the Gamecocks are always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and last Saturday's loss at LSU was a reminder of how, every time Carolina has a chance to step up and establish themselves as a national player, they fail.
A loss on Saturday would be beyond devastating to Spurrier, who—for the first time since taking over in 2005—has a team that is equally as potent offensively as it is defensively. Even when they won their first-ever SEC East title in 2010, their offense was inconsistent behind Stephen Garcia.
While Connor Shaw has shown the ability to win games (they are 13-2 since he took over last season), he needs to prove he can lead this team to another SEC East title.
The time for feel-good stories for this school is over.
If they fail to defeat Florida on Saturday, no matter what happens beyond this game, the 2012 season will be a massive failure. While they can blame a tough schedule and this and that, the great teams find a way to get the job done.
In a must-win game, LSU found the way to keep their hopes alive with an inferior QB by manhandling Carolina on the ground. LSU ran for 258 yards to Carolina's 34. Big time teams don't get physically dominated like Carolina did. Every failure that has contributed to Carolina's pitiful history was proven true against the Tigers.
How will they respond? History says they will fold up and cower like the failures they have always been. Sorry, if that hurts Carolina, but your team has to prove it is a legit contender.
One win over Georgia proves nothing.
Carolina holds their destiny in their hands. Wins in their final three SEC games will give them a chance to compete for the SEC Championship and perhaps a National Championship. If the Gamecocks are truly winners, then they will prove it on the field.
If they aren't, well...losers lose.
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