COLUMBIA — For a moment, the sparkle left his eyes. His smile strained, then faded. He fidgeted in his seat, disappointment setting in, an uncomfortable feeling for a coach who had just beaten his fiercest rival.
Right here, in the aftermath of South Carolina’s unprecedented fifth straight win against Clemson, Steve Spurrier showed what really mattered. He complained of the postgame Gatorade bath following South Carolina’s routine 31-17 victory over Clemson. Better to save those celebrations for a bowl win, he said.
Better yet, an SEC championship.
“The boys snuck up on me on that one,” Spurrier said as he entered the postgame media room.
The bigger stakes never left Spurrier’s mind Saturday night. The unknown gnawed at him, tugging at his curiosity. Spurrier couldn’t hold off. He didn’t wait to escape somewhere more private than the postgame media room.
Midway through answering a question about the pressure his defense got on Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, Spurrier abruptly interjected a question of his own. He needed to know the score.
When told Missouri had taken a touchdown lead on Texas A&M, that the Tigers would likely hold onto the the win and SEC East title, Spurrier quickly shrugged and moved on.
“Whatever happens, happens,” he said.
Barely a minute later, Spurrier stood from the postgame media table, fleeing the cameras and reporters and questions.
The bittersweet feeling on an otherwise jubilant night was the lost opportunity. For the third straight season, a team South Carolina beat will represent the SEC East in Atlanta. Missouri will play Auburn at 4 p.m. Saturday in the SEC championship game while the Gamecocks watch from home yet again.
South Carolina recorded its third straight 10-win season, but an overcast Saturday at Tennessee will likely haunt throughout the winter, spring and summer. The Gamecocks lost, 23-21, to the Vols on Oct. 19, with Tennessee’s field goal on the final play the only barrier keeping USC from Atlanta.
It remains an inexplicable defeat. Tennessee lost its next four games after beating USC, including a home loss to Vanderbilt. The Gamecocks won their five games since the loss, including two against top-10 opponents. Yet, in the wonderfully unpredictable world of college football, anything can happen.
“We really can’t control that,” junior defensive end Jadeveon Clowney said Saturday. “Coming into this game, we were really just looking to beat our in-state rival, which we did. It happens. It wasn’t our chance to go, but we’ve just got to keep pushing and get ready for the bowl game.”
Clowney, among the top pro prospects in college football, said earlier this season he needs surgery to remove bone spurs in his right foot after the season. When asked Saturday, he did not give a direct answer on whether he’ll be available for South Carolina’s bowl game, wherever it’s played.
“I’m not even focused on that right now,” Clowney said of the surgery. “I’m just trying to see where we’re going to fall in the bowl, and just get ready for that.”
South Carolina has one more game left with a core group that led the program to unprecedented heights. It’s one more chance for fans to appreciate this team, complete with Clowney, quarterback Connor Shaw and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles.
It was a successful fall, by almost any measure. Yet, the season remains unfulfilled. For a team that just whipped its biggest rival, that’s an uncomfortable truth.
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