College football teams' seasons could have been better

Was your favorite collegiate team’s football season a success or something less? It’s all in how you look at it.

After Clemson’s humiliating 70-33 pantsing by West Virginia in Wednesday’s Orange Bowl, it’s hard to imagine Tiger fans boasting around the water cooler with South Carolina fans about the glory of winning the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Turns out, not all double digit-win seasons are the same. Unless you run the table or sweep your rivals, there is always some kind of flaw that might dampen the perception of a season’s legacy.

Does a conference championship offset lopsided losses to an archrival or a bowl meltdown?

Can 11 wins and a bowl triumph overshadow failing to win your division?

Is a 10-game winning streak negated by bookend two-game defeats?

This little evaluation exercise percolated as a semantic debate in the office. A few of us questioned the use of the word “greatest” in a post-bowl wrapup of South Carolina by our Gamecock in residence.

There is no question that South Carolina’s first 11-win season in its history was its best record-wise. But the use of the term “greatest” implies some kind of company of “greats,” which in the Gamecocks’ case would be a small enough assembly to fit generously into a Prius.

The Gamecocks’ 2011 campaign was undeniably impressive given the scale of distractions that befell the team during the course of the season. South Carolina swept its competition in the SEC East, humiliated its rival Clemson and ended on a high note with a rare bowl victory for the program over a well-regarded Big Ten opponent. Having done so without much of an offense was arguably the finest coaching job Steve Spurrier has done since he made a winner out of Duke.

But if you had asked Gamecocks fans in August if they would consider this season “great” without winning the division, making it back to the SEC Championship game or going to something bigger than the conference’s fifth-best bowl, I’m not sure the answer would have been positive. There was enough preseason chatter about competing for the BCS title that a berth in the Capital One Bowl would not have been a negotiable alternative.

Yet despite failing to reach its lofty expectations, there is no doubt that Gamecocks fans take away more satisfaction from the 2011 season than the rest of the big four schools.

And that includes the only conference champion among the lot – Clemson.

The 2011 Tigers were like the little girl with the curl of nursery rhyme fame – when she was good, she was very, very good; and when she was bad, she was horrid.

Clemson’s revamped offense under coordinator Chad Morris was mostly fun to watch and led the Tigers to its first ACC title in 20 years, first 10-win season in 21 years and first Orange Bowl in 30 years. They authoritatively swept presumed conference power Virginia Tech and posted victories over ranked foes Florida State and Auburn to vault into the national conversation and earn Dabo Swinney national coaching honors.

But three of its four losses were abominations. The Tigers got run over by a middling N.C. State team. They lost decisively for the third consecutive year in the one game that matters most in the Palmetto State. Then they capped it off with the most undignified and embarrassing defeat in the history of the BCS bowls. That West Virginia let up and stopped at 70 points when it seemingly could have hit 90 was gracious.

Can you come away from that anything but humbled? Don’t expect Swinney to deliver another post-defeat rant about how much better Clemson is than South Carolina.

Then there’s Georgia. It’s tough to criticize a team whose only losses all year came against four teams that could all finish among the top 10 in the final coaches poll. But Bulldogs fans know it could have been better with three blown leads in the second half of games Georgia arguably should have won.

The Bulldogs won the SEC East for the first time since 2005, along the way beating its most heated rivals Florida, Auburn and Georgia Tech. But they were catastrophically generous in a 45-42 loss to South Carolina that should have gone the other way. They dropped two touchdown passes that could have opened a 21-0 lead on No. 1 LSU in the conference championship, changing the entire complexion of a game that ultimately got away from them.

Then they finished with a questionable loss to Michigan State in the Outback Bowl, blowing a 16-point halftime lead and missing a game-winning field goal in overtime. While head coach Mark Richt solidified his job status with 10 wins, he raised more questions with his conservative game management that proved costly.

So for all of the positives generated along the way by Clemson and Georgia en route to conference and division titles, there remains a lingering distaste for each with how things ended. And despite the high-water victory mark that South Carolina attained, there will always be a question of “what if?”

The good news for all of them, however, is they weren’t Georgia Tech – which lost its seventh consecutive bowl game and was stripped of its 2009 ACC title in 2011.

The Yellow Jackets did beat Clemson, so they’ve got that going for them.

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