South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier is 68 years old, although if you include the added wrinkles, stress and emotion from his 35-plus years of coaching, you may as well tack on a few extra birthdays.
The Ol' Ball Coach isn't getting any younger, and despite his obvious love of football, he's on the downhill side of his time on the sidelines.
So the question becomes, as it is with any coach: what can he accomplish now? What are his goals for the Gamecocks, how realistic are they and will they be achieved before he retires?
At a program like South Carolina, which has become a mainstay in the Top 25 rankings in recent years, winning a national championship is entirely possible and it's something the coaching staff can sell to recruits.
However, life in the SEC isn't easy for anybody. Just ask Alabama, which saw its streak of national titles snapped by rival-Auburn on the last play of the Iron Bowl. Before Florida State finally ended the conference's reign atop college football, winning the league was as difficult as bringing home the crystal football.
National championships are the end goal in all of college athletics. But there's something special about winning an SEC title. It's similar to what teams from the Pac-12 and Big Ten shoot for when you start talking about Rose Bowls. Ending the year as the best team in the country is nice, but successful trips to Pasadena could easily be listed atop each program's resume.
In a 2012 piece by Rick Maese of The Washington Post, Spurrier discusses why an SEC title is so important to him:
I’d rather win an SEC title here—I’d rather win a division here—than a national championship at Alabama or Southern Cal or something like that. That’s been done before. The things we’re trying to do here, they’ve never been done before.
What it all boils down to is this: Can the man who claimed six conference championships during his time as the head coach of Florida win one last league title with South Carolina before he retires?
The quick and obvious answer is yes, of course he can. Whether he will or not vaults us into a separate discussion.
But we know he can because of what South Carolina has achieved in the past few seasons. In 2010, Spurrier led his team to the SEC title where it was subsequently demolished by Cam Newton and Auburn. Don't forget that when the two matched up earlier in the year, the Tigers only won by eight points.
One year later, Spurrier's squad finished 11-2, with a 3-point defeat to Auburn being the only reason the Gamecocks failed to reach the conference title game. In 2012, a similar narrative played out as a 23-21 loss at LSU became the difference between making it to Atlanta and staying home on conference championship weekend. Instead, it was Georgia making the trip, despite the Bulldogs having lost 35-7 to the Gamecocks' earlier in the year.
And in 2013, it was a Michael Palardy field goal as time expired that allowed Tennessee to eclipse South Carolina, 23-21. The Gamecocks also lost to Georgia, but had they been able to slip past the lowly Volunteers, they would have reached Atlanta over Missouri due to having beaten the Tigers on their home field.
The easy counter for how close this team has come in recent seasons is to simply say, "yeah, but they wouldn't have won anyway." Perhaps, but that very same Bulldogs' team that was shellacked by South Carolina in 2012 lost to Alabama by just three points.
And while Auburn was seemingly unstoppable throughout November due to a Gus Malzahn recipe containing equal parts luck and genius, who's to say the Tigers beating South Carolina was a sure thing? Missouri coach Gary Pinkel's defense was stellar in yielding only 23 points per game, but Spurrier's allowed fewer at just over 20.
In any case, a few bounces of the ball here and there puts South Carolina in the conference championship for what may have been four straight seasons. It didn't work out that way, but with how close the Gamecocks have come, you're not being honest with yourself if you don't think Spurrier has one final run in him.
Regardless of how great his coaching mind may be, however, what it comes down to is having the right mix of players to bring an SEC title to Columbia. In recent years, we've seen guys like Marcus Lattimore, Connor Shaw and Jadeveon Clowney display the skills to rival anyone else in the country.
In 2014, it'll be up to quarterback Dylan Thompson, wide receivers Damiere Byrd and Shaq Roland and running back Mike Davis to lead the offense, which has been inconsistent. But Davis in particular looks like an elite-level back after rushing for nearly 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013. And Thompson, though shaky at times, has more experience than most signal-callers taking over the starting role.
It's the defense that could prevent Spurrier from winning another SEC title, however, as the defensive line must completely rebuild following the losses of Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton. Then again, South Carolina hasn't given up more than 24 points per game since 2003! The unit has allowed between 18 and 23.5 points per contest in every year since 2004, so you can't expect that number to drastically change in 2014.
This piece by Bleacher Report's Lee Schechter puts the number of years left in Spurrier's tank at three. In the aforementioned Maese article, the coach adds, "I'm not going to coach a lot longer. I'm not going to be a lifer, to where you coach until they run you out."
But there's the ever-present allure of doing something nobody has ever done in Columbia: win an SEC title. Given how close the program has come in recent years to doing just that, you have to think Spurrier will continue to try his luck as long as his teams are in the hunt.
Because the Ol' Ball Coach has brought so much to the game, putting a limit on what he can accomplish in his time remaining seems unfair. Even though the Gamecocks have yet to win an SEC championship, they have all the tools necessary to do it.
So again we ask: can he do it? Absolutely. Will we go out on enough of a limb to predict that it will actually happen? As Spurrier might say when poised with a decision about whether or not to go for it on fourth down: Heck, why not?
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