COLUMBIA -- Scarcely five minutes after announcing South Carolina did not receive a bowl game bid last week, coach Steve Spurrier said something completely out of character.
"I want to encourage our fans to hang in there with us," Spurrier said. "We realize we didn't have a very good season, but our fans shouldn't give up on us."
This from the same guy who boldly declared in August that this edition of the Gamecocks' football team could compete for the SEC championship. It's doubtful Spurrier was really worried about his fans giving up -- if they packed Williams-Brice Stadium in the midst of a 21-game losing streak a few years ago, they'll pack it for a coach that's won 21 of his first 37 games.
But he apparently felt some kind of explanation/apology was necessary, after the Gamecocks tanked in their last five games. A 6-1 start and No. 6 national ranking, plus a legitimate shot of winning the SEC East, fizzled into debilitating, sometimes embarassing, losses.
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Spurrier didn't try to cast any doubt on the Independence Bowl committee's selection of Alabama over USC or on any of the other at-large bowl selections. He admitted that everyone fell short this year.
"We understand where we didn't have anyone to blame but ourselves," he said. "We had our chances."
But then came the follow-up. Spurrier pointed out the Gamecocks had very few seniors (only 10 of the 21 departees logged significant time) and the third year of a coaching regime is usually the most talent-bare (although Spurrier's third team at Florida won the SEC East).
So looking ahead to next year, when his last recruiting class will have a year under its belt and he should start to see some improvement from his veterans, what does Spurrier see?
"I really think our players played pretty hard ... proud of the effort the last game," he said. "If we could have helped them just a little bit more as coaches, maybe it would have worked out."
The most important change will come at quarterback, following the departure of Blake Mitchell. Although Chris Smelley would seem to have the nod after starting five games, Spurrier has been high on the progress of redshirt freshman Stephen Garcia.
Garcia has shown off a strong arm and the ability to move around in the pocket in practice. If he can win the job in the spring -- Spurrier said Garcia has much to learn -- it could help take pressure off the troublesome offensive line.
"The more I watch college football, the more I realize the importance of a quarterback that can move around a little bit," Spurrier said. "Stephen can do that. He, Smelley and Tommy Beecher will compete to come out of practice and be number-one."
After that comes the standard chores of filling in the offensive line and recruiting to fill holes. Spurrier said he expects linebacker Jasper Brinkley and wide receiver Kenny McKinley to turn down the NFL for their final years and the recruiting trail would be traveled trying to find program-building recruits.
As for the sour memory of last season, Spurrier said he was proud of his players' attitudes, but some of their efforts needed to increase. Although he said he was impressed by the performance against Clemson, the game was still a loss.
And one more win would have the Gamecocks preparing for the Independence Bowl.
As his players sat scattered around the post-game interview area, realizing their season was probably done, several spoke of how they wanted to avoid the same feeling. They said they weren't bothered by Spurrier's comments of how the effort was lacking, only how they took it to heart and wanted to prove they could play hard when they had to.
The only problem is they've got to wait a year before they can show it.
"Hopefully, it will be motivation for us to try and finish games out, finish teams out," McKinley said. "Don't know where it went wrong, but it just went downhill. We just got to come to finish next year."