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South Carolina Football, Superstition, And The False Church Of Skeptical Faith

South Carolina fans have every reason to be optimistic this year, and that's what makes it all feel so wrong and strange for them to enter 2011 season as the SEC East favorites.

This is when it gets queasy, South Carolina. You were fun as a startup, especially when we knew there would be other, more reputable teams to bail you out down the stretch.

Now we are in a different market completely, especially if we limit this to the SEC East. Blue-chip Florida stands somewhere between insolvency and its next peak under Will Muschamp. Georgia appears to be in full Tuberville Syndrome Phase* with Mark Richt putting everything on his quarterback, a defense that may or may not congeal into a dependable unit, and a group of incoming freshmen who, like prospective investments overseas, look good on paper but have not been seen by the oversight committee. Tennessee is still in Chapter 8 bankruptcy and is under new management following the disastrous overthrow of former CEO Phil Fulmer and the brief but interesting reign of brash young tycoon Lane Kiffin. (New management is promising, but investors are still skittish.) 

The once-bankable SEC East now has few dependable firms, which brings us to you, South Carolina. This is not a matter of a promising depth chart lying to your eyes---no, this is real value. We all saw Marcus Lattimore's savage freshman season, one long string of broken tackles, brutal runs, and linebackers scrambling to tackle extreme angles his speed and power forced them to defend. We saw the holes he opened up in coverage downfield, green patches of turf so unoccupied by enemy defenders even Stephen Garcia recognized them. We saw what he did to Alabama using two run plays and four quarters of pure anger. Lattimore, as the kids can say, can ball, and sometimes does it to the extent one might say is out of control in his balling.

From somewhere in the back of your mind, a voice: it's still South Carolina.

The offense doesn't end and begin with him. Alshon Jeffrey may be the prototypical Spurrier receiver: big, with superb hands, just enough speed to stretch the field, and the physical authority to win jump balls and muscle off corners and safeties with ease. What he did to opposing corners bordered on the criminal in at least 18 states and Puerto Rico, and was just considered plain mean, uncivil behavior in the rest. South Carolina's offensive line is...well, it's not horrible, and that's a lot to boast about in this division.

And that voice again: It's South Carolina.

The defense. They have one, and it likes to hurt people, especially via sacks (first in the SEC in 2011). They have the requisite beef along the line in the form of DT Travian Robertson, established speed off the corner in DE Devin Taylor, and a tantalizing and fearsome prospect in incoming freshman Jadeveon Clowney bookending Taylor on the opposite end of the line. The linebacking corps is decent, and the secondary in this 4-2-5 has Stephon Gilmore and [mumble mumble mumble]. Let's not talk about them and we'll keep this theme of positivity going here.

Forget that. It's still South Carolina.

Steve Spurrier, too. Don't forget that the wizened Ball Coach is a reason for optimism since, unlike so many old dogs, he has in fact learned new tricks. The Gamecocks base run play last year was a shotgun zone read, unheard of in earlier variations of his pass-freaky offense. He leaned on Lattimore and the defense, and though you could see it killing him on the inside it worked beautifully on the field. The coaching staff is as adaptable and seasoned as it has been in his time at South Carolina, and shockingly in his third decade coaching in the SEC this description applies to Spurrier himself. He may rightfully claim to be the best coach in South Carolina's football history. It's the most cohesive staff in the SEC East, so management cannot possibly be a concern for investors here.

En espanol! Pero esta Carolina del Sud.

And yet, here we are prepared to pick them as the favorite in the SEC East to repeat as division champions and we our confused by a kind of skeptical faith in South Carolina's innate mediocrity. Nothing but the past points toward South Carolina ascending to the peak of their kingdom, but you see them doing it, stumbling, and then rolling downhill into a 10,000 foot crevasse, don't you? You remember last year's inconsistencies, a year highlighted by a sound defeat of Alabama and marred by a prime-time no-show against Arkansas? Remember when they lost to Kentucky? Or the twin swoons in the Georgia Dome, first in the humiliating defeat to Auburn in the SEC Championship Game, and then the secondary embarrassment of losing the Chick-Fil-A Bowl to Florida State? And how this fits into the program's pattern of weak finishes under Spurrier?

That's more like it, because you see, this is South Carolina.

Stephen Garcia is all too familiar with it, and should be. He has been the enigmatic linchpin for a good chunk of South Carolina's recent football history. He has been equal shares maddening and brililant, prone to turnovers and errors of both a personal and athletic nature, and yet just as likely to pilot South Carolina to its best season ever. If he survives the summer without his bandito ways forcing Spurrier to boot him off the team for good--and that is a huge IF--he is the tipping point for their hopes. There is no middle ground with Garcia. You either clear the fountains and land gloriously on the other side, or you biff the landing and wind up in a full-body cast.

And we know which way that would tip, because this is South Carolina.

Yes, but that in itself is a kind of erroneous faith, isn't it? I want to believe there is nothing inherently cursed about South Carolina football, just like I want to believe that sitting at a certain spot on the craps table alone makes no difference in how the dice fall. Yet there it is: the knot in the stomach, the slight quease when your lucky six o'clock spot right along the middle of the rail is taken by an Asian grandmother wearing a tracksuit and throwing her money down in your lucky spot.

It really doesn't make a difference, but it does because we are flawed, hopelessly superstitious people, and nowhere more so than when it comes to your team. South Carolina fans understand this more than anyone since disgrace and mediocrity have been the norm for the program. Prior to 2010, the best finish the Gamecocks could boast was in 1969 when they played in the ACC. The rest has been agony, one glorious bowl game against Ohio State, and the ghost of Steve Taneyhill's mullet and George Rogers floating over the stadium.

Facts and circumstance are on now firmly on their side, and that may be the most alien environment yet for Gamecocks fans. Superstition, the belief in their own inherent doom hasn't been useless at all. It's been a comfort, a way to believe in some order out of chaos. Superstition has been the armor they have worn against being stabbed by the coldest blade of all, hope. To hope means abandoning that phrase--but it's South Carolina--to explain away the obvious division favorite going into the 2011 season.

Yes it is South Carolina, and here we are using that phrase to refer to the best team in the SEC East. It's weird enough as it is, but this is 2011 and Mike Leach is fishing in Key West, Ron Zook still somehow has a job, and Brady Hoke is the head coach of the Michigan Wolverines. The unthinkable is becoming the normal is becoming the given, and we're all just going to have to take this toboggan ride to hell together, aren't we?

*Tuberville Syndrome: Late stage coaching tenure phenomenon defined by a number of behaviors all aimed at keeping one's job. Typical onset occurs somewhere around year seven or eight, but may happen as early as six years or as late as 12. Includes changing coordinators, using new non-football-related motivational tactics to reach bored players, and a general program malaise.