COLUMBIA -- As most expected, South Carolina's season ended Sunday when a call from any bowl game representative never came.
"We're a little disappointed we didn't get to a bowl game but we understand," coach Steve Spurrier said. "We understand where we didn't have anyone to blame but ourselves.
"We had our chances."
The Gamecocks (6-6) ended up staring at the wreckage of a promising season that ended with five straight losses. Although bowl-eligible, USC was battling against small odds for a remaining spot and came up empty.
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There was a glimmer of hope the Independence Bowl (Shreveport, La.) would select USC for the second time in three years. But the Independence decided to select Alabama (6-6), closer geographically and expected to bring several thousand fans after an attendance resurgence under first-year coach Nick Saban.
"We think it just basically came down to just us and Alabama for the Independence Bowl," Spurrier said. "Alabama's a little closer ... guess that was the reason Alabama was picked."
Once that option was used up, USC was hoping to find a spot in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces (Fort Worth, Texas) Bowl or snag another at-large spot, but there were no spots to give out. Teams with 7-5 records or 6-6 squads that were deemed more worthy of a bowl game took all the spots, leaving the Gamecocks home for Christmas after two straight bowl seasons.
Spurrier stood to become the first coach to ever lead USC to three straight bowl games. Instead, he earned his first five-game collegiate losing streak as USC collapsed down the stretch.
"We had a wonderful opportunity and didn't get it done, offensively, defensively or coaching-wise," Spurrier said. "We have no excuses."
The Gamecocks were left with a sickening realization -- they weren't unjustly left off the bowl invitation list or ignored. They just weren't good enough.
USC began the year 6-1 and was ranked sixth in the country, but its sixth win (24-15 at North Carolina) showcased a shoddy second half that almost lost the game. That spiraled into a shocking home loss to Vanderbilt the next week, followed by an overtime defeat at Tennessee and defensive meltdowns against Arkansas and Florida.
The Gamecocks ended the year by blowing a 21-20 lead in the final five minutes to archrival Clemson, losing 23-21 on a field goal as time expired. They spent last week in limbo, hoping they could grasp one last straw, before Sunday came and went with no invitation.
Spurrier said he and his team were disappointed but not discouraged, since only 10 seniors played a significant role this year and his best recruiting class just finished its first year. The ending stretch stung, especially the close losses to Tennessee and Clemson, but once Mark Buchholz kicked the game-winner last week, Spurrier and his staff pretty much knew they had no choice other than to begin preparing for next year.
"Right now we need to finish up this recruiting season, get ready for spring ball, try to build a much stronger team for next season," Spurrier said. "We got some issues we got to straighten out before we can be a team that can compete for the SEC championship."
USC heads into a cloudy offseason, perhaps bracing for a few changes. Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix, who came under fire during the last three weeks of the season, has already been contacted by his alma mater and former assistant coaching stop Southern Miss about its head coaching vacancy. Wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. and secondary coach Ron Cooper could also be mentioned as potential successors for openings around the country.
Spurrier Sr. seems to have his name off the rumor mill after it was announced LSU coach Les Miles is planning on staying with the Tigers, thereby eliminating LSU's need for a high-profile, proven SEC winner. But there's still the question of whether Spurrier could land on any other coaching-search lists, and if two of his biggest play-makers will be back next season.
The Gamecocks lose seniors Blake Mitchell, Cory Boyd, Lanard Stafford, Andy Boyd, Brandon Isaac, Casper Brinkley, Chris Hampton, Web Brown, Cody Wells and James Thompson and there's the potential to lose Jasper Brinkley and Kenny McKinley. Brinkley, USC's leading tackler a year ago before suffering a knee injury early this season, is eligible for the NFL but has said he plans on returning for another year.
McKinley, the team's most productive receiver who broke Sterling Sharpe's single-season receptions record this year, is likewise eligible but at 6-foot, probably wouldn't be very high on NFL lists. McKinley said after the Clemson loss he planned on returning.