CFN Bowl Analysis ... Chick-fil-A
Florida St 26 ... S. Carolina 17
Really, South Carolina? Again?
Obviously Steve Spurrier is a legendary head coach, and obviously he did wonders this year with a South Carolina program that hadn't won anything of significance since, well, ever. But for all the good things he did this year and for all the excitement generated by an SEC East title, it all went out the window with five turnovers in yet another disastrous post-season performance.
This was when Spurrier was supposed to shine. This was when he was supposed to do some of that ball coachin' stuff that made everyone fall in love with him as a head coach. Instead, coming off a horrendous performance in the SEC Championship loss to Auburn, the Gamecocks came out and played even worse.
This makes it four bowl losses in the last five tries for Spurrier's team, and to make it worse, the one win was a shootout over Houston. The four losses were all against BCS teams, and they were all ugly in their own ways with a collapse against Missouri in the 2005 Independence, blowout losses to Iowa and UConn over the last two seasons, and now this.
South Carolina fans can't seem to catch a break. Just when it seems like everything is turning. Just when the program finally, finally has a little bit of success, and it doesn't matter. The Gamecocks are 4-12 all-time in bowls, this was as close to the SEC championship as they've ever been, and now the hope has to be that the adversity at the end of this year can translate into success next season with most of the key pieces back.
-- Oh yeah, Florida State. Jimbo Fisher has his team playing fast, looking athletic, and rolling without a problem offensively thanks to a terrific game from the offensive line. Even after the loss of Christian Ponder, the FSU attack kept rolling with E.J. Manuel throwing well and Chris Thompson controlling the game.
- The hit on Marcus Lattimore showed just how brutal football can be. The freshman sensation allegedly needed a plastic surgeon to fix his mouth after taking a brutal shot on the opening drive. The Gamecocks never recovered.
- All of a sudden, Florida State has gone back to being a killer bowl team. It's not like it was during the height of Bobby Bowden's powers, going 13-1 in a 14-year span, but now the Noles have won three in a row and four of their last five, with the lone loss coming to Kentucky in the 2007 Music City Bowl when the team was depleted by the infamous academic scandal.
While it still may be a few minutes before the ball drops in Times Square, it's been 2011 in Columbia for about a month.
Ever since South Carolina got thumped by Auburn in the SEC title game, this return trip to the Georgia Dome was all about setting the table for next season. While there was no changing what occurred on Dec. 4, the ‘Cocks knew they couldn't allow that defeat to beat them twice. Oops. Sure, you don't get better by losing RB Marcus Lattimore in the early going, but even if the rookie was healthy, it might not have made a difference. South Carolina was a weak facsimile of the team that played so well during the final three games of the regular season. For Steve Spurrier, it's been another disappointing close to a season. In 2007, his kids lost their final five games. In 2008, they dropped their final three, getting spanked by Iowa in the Outback Bowl. A year ago, South Carolina was 1-4 down the stretch, barely showing up in a 20-7 PapaJohns.com Bowl loss to Connecticut. And now this. Back-to-back weak efforts in Atlanta. While the East Division will once again be unusually light on top 10 powerhouses next fall, the Gamecocks need to learn how to finish better if they plan to elevate to higher ground.
- If Florida State QB Christian Ponder is a stock, I'm still buying. Yeah, he's had a ton of arm problems over the past 15 months and couldn't finish tonight, but if he can get beyond them in the offseason, he still has a great future. Even at less than 100%, he flashes the passing skills, footwork, and maturity of a future NFL starter.
- Maybe Stephen Garcia is simply destined to be erratic throughout his South Carolina career. For a coach, he's one of the most frustrating quarterbacks in the country, looking like the hero one weekend and the goat the next. He still bird dogs too many passes, and got schooled by the Florida State secondary. He threw five picks in his final two games, a rough way to enter the offseason.
- Although the Seminole corners gave up a couple of long-gainers to Alshon Jeffery and Tori Gurley, the future is extremely bright for the pass defense in Tallahassee. Chick-fil-A Bowl MVP Greg Reid and Xavier Rhodes are only two and one year removed from high school, respectively, and have All-ACC talent and playmaking ability. Reid, in particular, was a monster Friday night.
By Matt Zemek
--When the South Carolina Gamecocks finally got out of their own way and decided to start performing on the offensive side of the ball, the 2010 Chick-Fil-A Bowl encountered its man-making motivational moment. Everyone inside an electric Georgia Dome knew that with the Florida State Seminoles clinging to a suddenly tenuous 19-17 edge, it was not going to suffice for the ACC Atlantic Division champions to merely gain field position or even another field goal.
No, FSU was going to need seven points and establish a two-score advantage. South Carolina's offense, after coughing up five turnovers, finally stacked together back-to-back touchdown drives midway through the second half. Eternally erratic quarterback Stephen Garcia settled down, and the Gamecocks' fresher offensive line began to lean against a sagging Florida State front four. A modest drive that gained three first downs and ended with a punt was not going to cut it for coach Jimbo Fisher's Noles – not against Carolina coach Steve Spurrier. Florida State had failed to accumulate more of a lead in the first three quarters because it had settled for four field goals. Spurrier possesses a legendary disdain for "those things," so it was only fitting that in a reunion between the Head Ball Coach and his foremost rival at Florida, the team from Tallahassee would need to spear South Carolina with a big, fat "seven."
Right on cue, a previously limited FSU offense sprang to life. The Seminoles had passed for just 40 yards in the game's first 48 minutes, but on their march to Chick-Fil-A fulfillment, quarterback EJ Manuel – filling in for an injured Christian Ponder – looked like a natural. Three deft passes on three separate third downs (one with six yards to go for a first down and the other two with seven yards to make), cold-cocked Cocky. The final dart from Manuel's quiver – a brilliant lofted toss after a superb scramble – converted a third-and-goal at the seven and delivered the touchdown Florida State so fully needed. The crunch-time gem from Manuel delivered the very two-score bulge the Seminoles needed, and with only 5:27 on the clock, Carolina's less-than-fast-paced offense was placed in an almost impossible position. Florida State's revived defensive line again pressured Garcia, and the end came quickly for Carolina.
The bottom line in this battle is that Florida State has to be thrilled about its prospects for 2011. Maryland is forfeiting continuity by firing Ralph Friedgen. North Carolina State is always mercurial, and next season, the Wolfpack must to go Doak Campbell Stadium. Wake, Boston College and Clemson are in various states of weakness, so a repeat Atlantic crown should likely stay in the Florida panhandle. Since ACC champion Virginia Tech – over in the Coastal Division – will lose Tyrod Taylor, it's fair to make FSU a co-favorite in the ACC alongside the Hokies. One thing's for sure: If EJ Manuel plays the 2011 season the way he attacked the fourth quarter on Friday night, Florida State is headed for big things in the new year. Beating Spurrier, the old adversary and former Swamp dweller, is icing on the cake.
--For South Carolina, the sting of this loss – though real – will be minimized by the fact that Marcus Lattimore didn't play very much. Travis Haney, Gamecock beat writer for the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier, calmly noted after this game that South Carolina's 2010 losses amounted to two defeats against Auburn and three defeats in games when Lattimore got hurt. This game joined the Kentucky collapse on Oct. 16 and the Arkansas wipeout on Nov. 6. This is a team that knows how good it is (and can still become) if No. 21 is healthy. That's one big source of hope for the Gamecocks as they move forward.
With 2011 upon us, the calculus isn't complicated: A healthy Lattimore makes this team an SEC East co-favorite alongside Florida. If Garcia can merely manage to make three extra plays per game (or avoid three big mistakes – take your pick), the Gamecocks will thrive. In this contest, Garcia's three interceptions were maddening enough, but his biggest error was an incomplete pass just before Florida State returned a punt for a big gain and took a 19-10 lead at the end of the third quarter. With Carolina down by a 16-10 count, Garcia had Brian Maddox all alone near the numbers on a wheel route that busted Florida State's coverage scheme. Perhaps Maddox eased up on the route, but Garcia didn't put enough air under the ball so that Maddox could make an easy catch. The ball also seemed to drift to the inside instead of hitting Maddox on a straight line. A better throw would have meant a likely 17-16 lead for the Gamecocks. Instead, Florida State accumulated a two-possession lead just minutes later. South Carolina and Garcia missed touchdown opportunities in the first half of the SEC Championship Game loss to Auburn. If that handful of almost-but-not-quite touchdowns can be turned into scores, Carolina will stand a better-than-even-money chance of defending its SEC East title. That's plenty of incentive for Garcia and Co. to take one more step toward fuller maturity in 2011.