COLUMBIA - A month ago, South Carolina's football team was talking seriously about winning the Southeastern Conference title.
The Gamecocks had won four straight games, having recovered nicely from a 1-2 start. Four straight losses and a heap of frustration later, the only title they're in contention for now is that of the SEC's worst team.
A season that began with much promise has come down to this: The Gamecocks enter Saturday's regular-season finale at Clemson (7:45 p.m., ESPN) knowing that a victory won't guarantee a trip to a bowl game.
"If we were to win the football game and end up 6-6, it's a disappointing year after two successful bowl games," said coach Lou Holtz, who is trying to take the Gamecocks (5-5, 3-5 SEC) to an unprecedented third straight bowl trip.
Even with a victory over Clemson, there's a chance Holtz's bunch will be home for the holidays. South Carolina and Mississippi, both one win away from bowl eligibility, are vying to play in the Independence Bowl.
The bowl, based in Shreveport, La., is the SEC's seventh and last bowl tie-in. Six league teams are already eligible, and the Rebels might be a more attractive pick for the Independence given their proximity to the bowl and quarterback Eli Manning's ties to Louisiana.
Mississippi (5-5, 2-4) closes its season by playing at Louisiana State and playing host to Mississippi State. If the Independence chooses the Rebels, the Gamecocks will not be eligible to attend a bowl not affiliated with the SEC.
"It would be very disappointing to be home for the holidays and watch everybody else play on TV," said redshirt sophomore quarterback Dondrial Pinkins, who is expected to start against the Tigers. "It'll hurt a lot."
After the most successful two-year stretch in the program's history - a 17-7 record that was highlighted by two Outback Bowl victories over Ohio State - not many Gamecocks followers expected a dramatic dropoff this season.
The team lost quarterback Phil Petty, star tailback Derek Watson was kicked off the team for repeated violations of team rules, but talent remained. With Holtz returning for his fourth season, approximating last year's 9-3 record didn't seem out of the question.
Holtz even declared last season that this year's team would be better. After 11 games that have seen the offense become the worst in the SEC, it's evident Holtz misjudged the returning talent.
The Gamecocks have been outscored 107-31 in their last four games, and they've scored just 17 points in the last 14 quarters.
"We're in a little bit of disarray right now," Holtz said. "Anytime you lose four (consecutive) football games, it doesn't matter who you lose to or how you lose. You lose four football games, your confidence is down. If your confidence goes down, your commitment goes down, your focus goes down, your performance goes down. And it's just sort of a downward spiral."
Holtz said he didn't anticipate the rash of turnovers that precipitated early-season losses to Virginia and Georgia, and he was banking on the emergence of at least one big-play receiver.
That hasn't happened, and teams have ganged up on the run and dared South Carolina to throw as a result. The Gamecocks have been inept through the air, having gone three straight games without throwing for more than 100 yards. Their nine passing touchdowns are the fewest in the conference.
Fans were enamored with senior quarterback Corey Jenkins before the season, and South Carolina's coaches said he was better than Petty. Jenkins was a bust through 10 games and was switched to safety before last week's 28-7 loss at Florida.
"The fans were real excited that Corey was coming, but he's a pure defensive player," said senior nose tackle Langston Moore. "If we had Phil Petty this year, we'd be having a totally different conversation. You really don't miss what you have until it's gone."
Said Holtz: "It starts with the quarterback. It's hard to find a good football team without an excellent quarterback."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org