Tampa might not be Tatooine to the South Carolina Gamecocks, but it's still as familiar a location for season-ending bowl games as the planet of twin suns is to major plot points in the Star Wars universe.
This coming New Year's Day will mark South Carolina's fourth trip to the Outback Bowl when they match up with the 8-4 Michigan Wolverines at Raymond James Stadium—a bowl game the Gamecocks have fared 2-1 in their previous three contests over the years.
When the Gamecocks traveled to Tampa for the 2001 Outback Bowl, they arrived as one of the biggest stories in college football, having gone 0-11 the season before and one of the biggest punch lines in sports. But Lou Holtz, in his second season, led the Gamecocks to a 7-4 record and an improbable bowl berth against Ohio State. And clinging to a 3-0 lead by the end of the first half, the Gamecocks outpaced the Buckeyes to earn a 24-7 victory, capping off one of the biggest turnarounds in NCAA history.
The fans that clamored for a rematch (wherever they lurked) got their wish the following season when a Jim Tressel-led Ohio State team looked to avenge their loss in the 2002 Outback Bowl.
By the third quarter, it was Ohio State that looked cockeyed (eh, stupid word play but available) as the Gamecocks led 28-0. But a fierce and unlikely rally by the Buckeyes led to a tie game with 1:54 left in the fourth quarter. It was as if that second Death Star had just waxed one of the Rebel capital ships over Endor. (Lando: "That thing's operational!")
But after one last giveaway-takeaway, Phil Petty and the Heartbreakers set up a game-winning Daniel Weaver field goal as time expired for a second consecutive Outback Bowl victory, 31-28. A very satisfying exhale reminiscent of Admiral Ackbar when the Super Star Destroyer careened into the Death Star.
Seven years would go by before the Gamecocks would make the trip to Tampa again, but it finally came around when South Carolina was matched up with Iowa for the 2009 Outback Bowl.
2008 was definitely one of those typical-of-the-time South Carolina seasons with the quarterback carousel in full swing and up-and-down, stagnating performances all year long. The 7-5 Gamecocks had struggled mightily against Florida and Clemson to finish the regular season, thus giving Spurrier a motive to make one last quarterback change and start (then) freshman Stephen Garcia against an 8-4 Iowa Hawkeyes program.
Now up to the point, the young Garcia was only saddled with two suspensions from the team for off-the-field conduct issues, but had also been plagued with a stomach illness that had kept him out late in the season.
With the prospect of a month of practice for a game taking place in Garcia's backyard (having played ball at Thomas Jefferson High School), Spurrier was all-in to give Garcia the start against Iowa. Sounded great at the time. Why not push the chips to the center with Garcia getting to throw down in front of his own home crowd?
By the end of the first half, Garcia was 9-for-18 with 79 yards and three interceptions, which promptly led to him being pulled for Chris Smelley.
Iowa effectively drubbed South Carolina 31-10 to spoil the Gamecocks' third trip to the Outback Bowl.
Now with trip No. 4 coming in less than a month against the Wolverines, what does all of that past experience mean in the grand scheme of things? Well, to quote Spaceballs, "absolutely nothing." But with plenty of time to do matchups, predictions and even pretentious opinionated claims for next year (as I look right in the mirror saying that), it's fun to look back at the past, especially with three very different games for the Gamecocks over the years.
And there's no reason to believe the 2013 Outback Bowl won't be any less entertaining judging by the seasons South Carolina and Michigan have had along with the stars they will be bringing to Tampa.
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