OK, it’s official: We can call the 2011 Gamecocks the best football team in school history.
With the 30-13 victory Monday over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl, South Carolina completed the season with an 11-2 record. It is the most wins in a season in Gamecock history.
Sadly for South Carolina fans, there are only a few seasons that merit discussion:
1980: George Rogers won the Heisman Trophy and led the Gamecocks to an 8-3 mark, but they lost to Clemson in the regular-season finale and got whipped in the Gator Bowl by Pittsburgh.
1987: One of the most talented teams in school history and had an 8-3 record. They beat Atlantic Coast Conference champion Clemson but were manhandled in the Gator Bowl by Louisiana State University.
2010: Gamecocks enjoyed best Southeastern Conference season by winning East Division, but they were destroyed by Auburn in the SEC title game and then lost to Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. There was a deflating end to the season with three losses in November and December.
1984: This was the most exciting season in school history, and one that held so much promise late in the year. The Joe Morrison-coached Gamecocks rolled up a 9-0 record and rose to No. 2 in the nation, but suffered the worst loss in school history at Navy. The Gamecocks did bounce back to beat Clemson, but then lost to Oklahoma State in the Gator Bowl.
Not only did South Carolina set a school record for wins this season, it overcame so many distractions. First, there was the ongoing Stephen Garcia soap opera. He was finally dismissed after a home loss to Auburn, but Connor Shaw stepped up and filled in nicely the rest of the season.
Then star running back Marcus Lattimore was lost for the rest of the season in a road win at Mississippi State. Again, the team stepped up and filled in for Lattimore with a running back by committee approach, and only lost once more the rest of the season.
Finally, with bowl preparations in full swing, the Gamecocks had to deal with assistant head coach/defensive guru Ellis Johnson taking the Southern Miss job. He didn’t coach in the bowl.
While those Gamecock teams of the 1980s each had star players, none could match the quality or depth of talent on the 2011 squad. The defensive line alone had all-stars Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney, and Antonio Allen and Stephon Gilmore earned postseason honors as well. On offense, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery had a disappointing season by his standards but will be a first-round draft pick in the spring. He holds most of the school’s receiving records, and his catch of the Hail Mary pass at the end of the first half against Nebraska will live forever in Gamecock lore.
The final rankings won’t be out until next week, but this South Carolina squad will be the first to finish inside the top 10 of the major rankings. South Carolina should enter the 2012 season inside the top 10.
It all adds up to the greatest season in South Carolina history.