COLUMBIA -- Before the season, as South Carolina tried to return to the Southeastern Conference championship game, the Gamecocks "set a lot of goals," according to coach Steve Spurrier.
"I think we had a goal to win eight, win nine, win 10," Spurrier said. "We didn't set one to win 11, so we're going to set a new one when we meet back up (today)."
Spurrier was basking in Saturday night's 34-13 win over Clemson, which gave the 14th-ranked Gamecocks a 10-2 regular season. They will try to surpass the 10-2 season of 1984 (the best year in school history) by winning No. 11 in their bowl game -- something the '84 team couldn't do in the Gator Bowl against Oklahoma State after finishing the regular season 10-1.
If they reach 11 victories by winning just their fifth bowl in 17 tries -- Spurrier is 1-4 at USC in bowls -- then few of their fans will remember, years from now, that they didn't play for the SEC title in 2011.
They will remember, even with a bowl loss, how a team without its most experienced quarterback (Stephen Garcia), left tackle (Kyle
Nunn) and best running back (Marcus Lattimore), polished off a three-year run of dominance over its rival -- victories by 17, 22 and 21 points.
When USC last beat Clemson in three straight years (1968-70), the margins were four, 14 and six points. When USC won four straight for the only time (1951-54), the margins were 20, six, seven and five. You have to go all the way back to 1931-33 (shutout margins of 21, 14 and seven), or even 1924-26 (shutout margins of three, 33 and 24) to find a stretch USC controlled this much.
Typical of their season, the Gamecocks' defense suffocated Clemson on Saturday. Clemson's 153 yards were its fewest since it gained 129 in 1998 against Florida State. USC finished the regular season No. 12 nationally in points allowed, No. 4 in yards, No. 2 in passing yards, No. 7 in turnovers gained, No. 5 in interceptions and No. 3 in fewest plays of 20-plus yards allowed. It was, quite simply, one of the greatest years ever for a USC defense.
The group was not perfect early. In the first three games, USC gave up 372 yards and 33.3 points per game. In the final nine games: 234.5 yards and 14 points per game. More astounding was USC's red-zone defense to close the year. The Gamecocks allowed nine touchdowns in 12 red-zone chances for its opponents in the first three games. In the final nine games: 10 touchdowns in 27 chances.
"We cut out one of our red zone coverages that we weren't playing well," said USC defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson "We started pressuring a little bit more in the red zone, starting playing a little bit more man (coverage), and trusting the players. And I think it helped a little bit."
As the Gamecocks look ahead, they have some questions to answer.
Will sophomore wide receiver Bruce Ellington, of Berkeley High, continue his two-sport experiment of playing football and basketball beyond this year? Ellington is rejoining the basketball team this week and said he will think about if he wants to keep playing football.
Will junior Kenny Miles, who played well Saturday when replacing ineffective top tailback Brandon Wilds, return for his final year of eligibility? Miles said "that's really up to the coaches."
And, most immediate: Will the Gamecocks' defense help them make history in the bowl game?