Originally created 11/24/03

Analysis: Gamecocks can't turn tide

Wait until next year.

South Carolina fans have worn out the cliche through years of following a football program that has lost more games than it has won. When the past and present offer so little, clinging to the future is their only option.

While they were heading for the exits during the third quarter of Saturday's 63-17 humiliation against Clemson, Gamecocks fans probably weren't thinking about next year.

Unlike some schools, whose standards of success are measured by conference titles and 10-win records, South Carolina's seasons are usually defined by how the Gamecocks fare against Clemson.

And more often than not, they don't fare well. Saturday's drubbing was the Tigers' 61st victory in the 101-game series, their sixth in seven years and their 12th in 16 years.

It sent a resounding message that this series, which had recently shown signs of finally tilting in the Gamecocks' favor, remains the exclusive property of Clemson. For South Carolina supporters who thought coach Lou Holtz was the answer to reversing the Gamecocks' fortunes in the rivalry, that has to be a numbing thought.

When Holtz took over in December 1998, fans believed with every fiber of their being that he would lead South Carolina to regular victories over its nemesis. Making the Gamecocks a contender in the Southeastern Conference could wait - as long as Holtz got the best of Tommy Bowden, who had just taken over at Clemson.

Almost four years after the two coaches were hired, the gap between South Carolina and Clemson is as wide - if not wider - than it was then. That much was clear after the Tigers did whatever they wanted in their most convincing victory over the Gamecocks since 1900.

Looking back on a second-straight 5-7 season, South Carolina's glass-half-full folks will remember the narrow losses that kept their team from something memorable: The Gamecocks lost by a combined eight points against Tennessee, Mississippi and Florida.

The pessimists, plentiful after Saturday's embarrassment, will recall the list of games in which their team didn't have a chance - let alone a clue. South Carolina lost its other four games by an average of 29.5 points.

The blowout losses are nothing new; four of the Gamecocks' defeats in 2002 were by an average of 20 points. This is not a trend typical of a Holtz-coached team.

But all that would probably be tolerated if Holtz had found a way to solve Bowden by now. The Tigers have licked the Gamecocks four out of five times since the coaches took over, twice on South Carolina's home turf at Williams-Brice Stadium.

If you pay any attention to recruiting in the state of South Carolina, the past few years have been intriguing. The Gamecocks have established a firm grip on the top players in the Palmetto State despite Bowden's wins over Holtz.

South Carolina's 17 wins and back-to-back bowl victories in 2000 and 2001 are probably the biggest reason for the perceived recruiting advantages, but those accomplishments are fast becoming a speck in the Gamecocks' rear-view mirror.

The hunch here is that Saturday's result will be tough to ignore for some big-time recruits who will choose between South Carolina and Clemson. Holtz's ability to work a living room helps, but Bowden's ability to wipe Holtz's team off the field might begin to pack more punch than some of Holtz's punch lines.

That isn't to say South Carolina's program is on the rocks. The Gamecocks return most of their key players from a young and talented team, and the schedule should be friendlier in 2004.

So next year figures to hold some promise.

Sound familiar?

Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or larry.williams@augustachronicle.com.


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