Commentary: Tough patches can’t cloud team’s success

pobley@thestate.comNovember 10, 2012 

As USC closed out another SEC season with a by-the-books dismantling of Arkansas on Saturday, it’s worth remembering preseason expectations.

It’s worth remembering prior to the season, two losses in conference play was every bit as possible as an 8-0 or 7-1 run. What no one could account for was the path the Gamecocks took to their second consecutive 6-2 campaign.

“We had some bumps in the road, but 6-2 isn’t bad,” USC coach Steve Spurrier said.

There is the pall of a letdown, evident in the smaller crowds that turned out for the past two home games. But make no mistake — it is an impressive thing these Gamecocks have achieved.

No team in the country was subjected to an October like the one the Gamecocks survived. Three consecutive games against top-five teams. Two of those games on the road.

Then, after emerging from that gauntlet, a horrific, morale-crushing injury to the one player who most exemplifies the team’s heart and soul.

But without Marcus Lattimore, USC beat Tennessee. Again. Without any hope of a division title or conference accolade, the Gamecocks ended years of frustration against Arkansas and locked up the school’s first undefeated home slate in SEC play.

For a fanbase to pile its hopes and dreams on the shoulders of college-age kids is an inherently unfulfilling proposition. Only one team can win the SEC East. Only one team can win the conference title. Only one team is crowned national champion.

And luck plays into that equation. We only need to look back to 2010’s unlikely SEC East title to witness how the vagaries of this game can lead to unexpected good fortune. And we need only to look back to last season to see how bad fortune (in the form of unbalanced scheduling) can mar an otherwise glorious campaign.

There will be more failure than success among those teams that aspire to live among the elite, for success to such teams is measured at very high altitude. When your program can consider a three-loss season a disappointment, you have arrived.

In reality, the Gamecocks are probably a year away from the goals we all thought possible for them before October. It’s at the intersection of reality and what-could-be that many of us all too often run a red light.

The prevailing catchphrase following Saturday’s game was one voiced by defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward and quarterback Connor Shaw, who both said “we left some plays on the field.”

This is something the Gamecocks will need to repair over the season’s final two weeks.

The USC offense sputters, looking bad on easy plays, then remarkable when faced with long odds. For every instance of Shaw overthrowing Ace Sanders, there seems a play like Saturday’s 4th-and-5 that he turns into a 42-yard touchdown with Bruce Ellington.

The USC defense surrenders yards by the bushel at times but slams the door with a big-play capability that might be unrivaled in the SEC.

The moral of the narrative is this: These Gamecocks made it all too easy to believe the sky was the limit when the forecast (this year’s brutal SEC schedule) called for rain. When the rains inevitably came, dreams were washed away.

“I feel like we should have been a lot better,” Clowney said. “We should have won those games and gone on to the SEC championship.”

But the sun always comes back out. On Saturday, the weather was better than ever.

And the Gamecocks? Well, they’ll be just fine, both now and into the future.

Said Shaw, “We still have a chance at a great year.”

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