COLUMBIA — Steve Spurrier and No. 8 South Carolina made more school history with the Gamecocks’ third consecutive 11-2 season. And the head ball coach doesn’t believe the run of success is over yet.
The Gamecocks closed the season with their sixth consecutive victory – and their third New Year’s Day bowl win in a row – by defeating No. 19 Wisconsin 34-24 at the Capital One Bowl on Wednesday.
“I’m just proud of our team,” quarterback Connor Shaw said. “We’re establishing a winning tradition around here.”
It was another year of achievement under Spurrier, who has turned the Gamecocks into a Southeastern Conference Eastern Division power in nine seasons at South Carolina.
Spurrier believes the Gamecocks can take that next step in the SEC title game as East champions, even with team leaders like defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and Shaw leaving South Carolina.
Spurrier has South Carolina’s returning players on board with that, too.
“I think the future’s really bright,” said freshman linebacker Skai Moore, who had two of South Carolina’s three interceptions against the Badgers.
“It’s going to be really exciting for the fans because we’re going to be putting on a good show the next few years.”
The past four years haven’t been too bad, either.
Spurrier sounded ready to walk away after the 2009 season, the team’s third consecutive six-loss year. Things began to turn, though, with the addition of star tailback Marcus Lattimore and an influx of the state’s top football prospects that had in the past gone to rival Clemson or left to star for other teams.
With Lattimore, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and receiver Alshon Jeffery – all three in the NFL – Spurrier began of string of success the Gamecocks hadn’t ever seen in 120 years of football.
They reached the SEC Championship Game in 2010, then won 11 games in each of the next three years, a remarkable feat given the Gamecocks had only one 10-win campaign in their history before Spurrier succeeded Lou Holtz following 2004.
“This has been a wonderful season with maybe the team we have and the way it could have gone the other way,” Spurrier said. “But it went our way so often this year. So we have a lot to be thankful for. We have been a blessed team.”
Expect the blessings to continue.
South Carolina’s biggest coming into the season – an untested defense behind Clowney and a running game to take over for Lattimore – were answered in a major way. Young linebackers like Moore and Kaiwan Lewis developed into aggressive playmakers who’ll anchor next year’s defense. Sophomore tailback Mike Davis had seven 100-yard games and led the SEC in rushing much of the season until injuries limited his effectiveness the past four games.
Still, Davis finished with 1,183 yards to become the Gamecocks first 1,000 yard rusher since Lattimore gained 1,197 yards as a freshman in 2010.
South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward knew his linebackers would have some growing pains to go through, but was proud of how they responded this year. He’s already looking at next fall.
“I said it before the season started, once these young linebacker learn what we’re doing, they’ll be the best group of linebackers to play here since I’ve been here,” Ward said. “There’s nothing that they’ve done here lately to make me think any different.”
Ward and the defense will have a new set of issues to handle next year. Along with Clowney, sacks leader in defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles and big-hitting cornerback Victor Hampton are giving up their senior seasons for the NFL. Fast, tall Chaz Sutton played the other defensive end spot and, a senior, also won’t return.
On offense, South Carolina’s biggest loss will be the ultra-tough Shaw at quarterback, who leaves with 27 wins as a starter — the most in Gamecocks history. First up under center for Spurrier will be Dylan Thompson, a backup celebrated by Gamecocks fans for winning at Clemson in 2012 when Shaw was hurt and couldn’t play.
Thompson is more of a downfield passer than Shaw so count on Spurrier to turn things loose even more than he has in recent seasons. Shaq Roland has emerged as an explosive receiver like Jeffery was. If two-sport standout Bruce Ellington returns at wideout, the Gamecocks should not have problems moving the ball.
Ellington says he’s still deciding whether to leave for the pros.