September 30, 2002
COLUMBIA — Ten years ago, when South Carolina played its first Southeastern Conference season, the schedule was brutal.
Not only was the SEC loaded at the time, with Eric Zeier-led Georgia joining Florida and Tennessee as premier teams, but the Gamecocks drew top-10 Alabama as their first rotating opponent from the SEC West. The non-league schedule was patsy-free. Clemson was a perennial top-25 team at the time. East Carolina had proven itself to be of top-30 caliber in most years. Louisiana Tech hardly could be considered a pushover.
Little wonder, then, that the Gamecocks often were pressed to finish above .500.
As USC tackled those schedules, its roster was stocked with players who had been recruited when Carolina was an independent, and the coaches’ best sales pitch was built on the hope that the Metro Conference might some day add football.
A decade later, the dynamics of the recruiting and the schedules have changed drastically. Carolina now enjoys equal footing in the league’s recruiting wars. When its coaches go into the homes of high school seniors, no conference explanations are needed.
Today’s prep seniors were second-graders when the Gamecocks played their first SEC season. In the eyes of most 18-year-olds, who can’t remember South Carolina as an independent, the school has about as much SEC tradition as most other league members.
But an expanded recruiting base isn’t the only reason the Gamecocks have a good shot at a winning season every year. A school that once overscheduled needed to fix that problem, and it has done so during the Lou Holtz era.
For the past two seasons, and for the next two, changes in the non-league schedule make the road considerably less demanding. Starting with New Mexico State and Eastern Michigan in 2000, and continuing with Boise and Wofford (originally Bowling Green) a year ago, the schedule-makers have virtually assured that USC will never again be concerned with a 21-game losing streak.
Although the November portion remains daunting, the early weeks of the season give USC plenty of chances to win. This season, only two of the first seven opponents (Georgia and surprising Kentucky) were likely to greet the Gamecocks with a winning record.
Among the four non-conference foes this year — New Mexico State, Virginia, Temple and Clemson — only Clemson has a good chance at a winning season. The USC schedule-makers couldn’t have known it in 1999, when the two-year series with Virginia was added, but the Cavaliers found themselves in the midst of a major rebuilding phase when they reappeared on the schedule. That the freshman-laden Cavaliers upset Carolina didn’t alter the fact that the athletic department did its job in scheduling a game USC normally would win.
The most significant change in the schedules of today and a decade ago involve East Carolina and Louisiana Tech, recently competitive teams that have been phased out of the picture.
The once-healthy rivalry with East Carolina, which won five of seven games against the Gamecocks in the 1990s, appears to be history. Also absent from future schedules is Lousiana Tech, which forged a tie in USC’s last season as an independent and gave the Gamecocks a 14-13 game in 1992. Neither school is on schedules that are nearly complete through 2006. They’ve been bypassed in a scheduling policy that puts more priority on comfort than on drama.
Next year’s schedule calls for celebrations at the expense of Louisiana-Lafayette and Alabama-Birmingham. Things will be a bit more challenging in a few years, as traditionally feisty teams from Troy State come to town in 2004 and 2005, and Central Florida reappears in 2005 and 2006. But there are no indications that any big-name powers soon will land on Carolina’s non-conference schedule.
One reason for that development is the fact that, having established its program in recent years, the list of opponents interested in coming to Columbia is smaller. Another is the fact that memories of the 1-10 and 0-11 seasons remain so vivid at the Roundhouse that there is little interest in returning to an overscheduled situation. A third reason is sheer economics. With sellout crowds assured and more than 60,000 season-ticket buyers on the books, there is little financial incentive to add big-name opponents.
South Carolina, which in the 1970s and 㥘s booked occasional intersectional rivalries with Southern Cal, Michigan, Nebraska and Notre Dame, isn’t alone in reserving some dates on the schedule for lightweights. This season, for example, every SEC team used its checkbook to buy at least two easy wins.
At the same time, even in what appears to be a down year in the SEC, the Gamecocks’ schedule calls for meetings with what could be five top-25 teams: Georgia, LSU, Tennessee, Florida and Clemson.
That’s a respectable schedule, but it isn’t the back-breaker USC was facing a decade ago.