South Carolina’s football team can’t be labeled a train wreck, but that’s no locomotive that will rumble the 488 miles from Columbia to Tampa, Fla.
For starters, Iowa’s opponent in the Outback Bowl has a 7-5 record. That’s the most losses of any team in the event’s 23-year history. Granted, the Hawkeyes can’t be too snooty themselves at 8-4. This will be the first meeting of unranked (by Associated Press) teams in the Tampa game since 1988, when it was called the Hall of Fame Bowl.
USC, as it is legitimately called, since it existed 79 years before the University of Southern California was founded in 1880, got its last win a month ago. It closed its season with losses of 56-6 at Florida and 31-14 at state rival Clemson, which was led at the time by an interim head coach.
The day after the Clemson debacle, Gamecocks Coach Steve Spurrier fired offensive line coach John Hunt. USC was last in the Southeastern Conference in rushing for the second-straight year, and was 11th in the 12-team league in fewest quarterback sacks allowed.
Not that the Carolina passing game is special. Spurrier has announced red-shirt freshman Stephen Garcia will quarterback the Gamecocks in their bowl. That’s interesting, since Garcia has just two starts and didn’t even play in the Clemson game.
Garcia’s college career has been more renowned for off-field shenanigans. He had three arrests or citations in his first 15 months on campus, and was suspended by Spurrier for spring practice sessions in 2007 and 2008. He arrived on campus in January 2007.
Drinking was the common thread. One episode involved keying the car of a visiting college professor.
Garcia happens to be from Tampa. At Jefferson High, which will be a practice site of one of the two Outback Bowl teams, Garcia passed for 83 touchdowns and more than 8,000 yards.
“Sometimes he plays like a freshman,” Spurrier said Sunday. “Other times, he shows flashes of being an outstanding player.
“A lot of times, freshman quarterbacks can only take you so far.”
Spurrier, of course, was the golden boy when he won seven SEC titles and a national championship at Florida between 1990 and 2001. But after putting so many knots on South Carolina heads over the years, he has found winning a lot tougher to do in Columbia in his four years there after an unsuccessful two-year stint coaching the NFL’s Washington Redskins.
His SEC record at Carolina is 15-17. His team is in the Outback Bowl only because the Outback had no better option from the SEC. LSU skidded backward to an undesirable 7-5 itself, and other traditional football powers Auburn and Tennessee had losing seasons.
South Carolina is in the Outback instead of LSU for the same reason the bowl took Iowa instead of 9-3 Northwestern: Its fans.
Tampa expects a considerable number of USC people, since 30,000 or so of them attended each of the 2001 and 2002 Outback Bowls, both won by the Lou Holtz-coached Gamecocks over Ohio State.
But the economy was better then, and USC fans felt a lot better about their team than they do right now.
Spurrier at least makes the game mildly interesting to people in the Tampa Bay area. He is an icon in the state for what he did with the Gators, and he coached the United States Football League’s Tampa Bay Bandits from 1983 to 1985.
Time marches on, however. Spurrier is 63, and the college game just gets harder.
Last Tuesday night, he hired Woody McCorvey to be his receivers coach. McCorvey had been the offensive coordinator at Mississippi State, but was basically out of a job when head coach Sylvester Croom resigned on Nov. 29.
But the next morning, Spurrier unhired McCorvey.
“I woke up and said I made a mistake yesterday,” Spurrier said, “and tried to correct it as quickly as possible.”
He said he won’t fill his two coaching openings — one assistant left last week to join new Tennessee Coach Lane Kiffin’s staff — until after the bowl.
A short-handed coaching staff, a green starting quarterback, a poor offensive line, a team that got pounded in its last two games.
New Year’s bowls aren’t what they used to be.