COLUMBIA — What was arguably the best year ever for Palmetto State major college football concluded in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, when The Associated Press and USA Today coaches’ polls were released.
South Carolina finished eighth in the AP and seventh in the coaches’ rankings. Clemson finished 11th and ninth. Both teams jumped three spots in the AP from where they were after the regular season.
The combined final ranking of 19 (No. 8 for USC, No. 11 for Clemson) not only marks just the fifth time both teams finished in the top 25, it also is their best combined ranking, eclipsing 1958 and 1987. Both years, Clemson ended No. 12, USC No. 15.
All teams ascended at least one spot in the coaches’ poll because Ohio State was ineligible. The Buckeyes were included in the AP poll, where they finished No. 3. The reason Clemson was an additional spot higher in the coaches’ poll: The coaches ranked Florida a spot behind the Tigers, while the AP placed the Gators two spots ahead.
Alabama finished first in both polls after winning its second straight Bowl Championship Series title and its third in four years. The Southeastern Conference had four other top-10 teams: Georgia and Texas A&M tied at No. 5; No. 8 USC and No. 9 Florida. The Atlantic Coast Conference’s highest finishers were No. 10 Florida State and No. 11 Clemson.
USC and Clemson both went 11-2 and won their bowl games — USC the Outback over Michigan, Clemson the Chick-fil-A over LSU.
Neither the Gamecocks nor Tigers had a bad loss. USC fell at LSU, which went 10-3 and finished No. 14 in the AP, and at Florida (11-2, No. 9). Clemson lost at Florida State (12-2, No. 10) and at home to the Gamecocks.
USC tied its program-best record from 2011 and finished in the top 10 for the second time ever. The Gamecocks were No. 9 in 2011. USC finished No. 22 in 2010, when it went 9-5 and played in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
“I’m very proud of our team and what we accomplished this season,” said USC coach Steve Spurrier. “We are obviously thrilled to be ranked one spot better than we were last year and the highest in school history.
“Much of the credit goes to our seniors, especially the leadership provided by our captains — D.J. Swearinger, T.J. Johnson, Justice Cunningham and Shaq Wilson — which was instrumental in our success.”
This was just USC’s third ever season with double-digit wins. The Gamecocks went 10-2 in 1984 and finished No. 11. Besides the past three seasons and 1984, USC has finished ranked just four other times: No. 13 in 2001, No. 15 in 1958, No. 15 in 1987 and No. 19 in 2000.
USC in 2012 won its fourth straight meeting with Clemson, tying the Gamecocks’ longest winning streak in the series, with 1951-54.
Despite that, the Tigers had a strong year. They won at least 11 games for the fourth time and came one victory shy of tying their win total from 1981, when they went 12-0 and won the national title. They finished ranked in the top 11 for the 10th time, and achieved their highest final ranking since 1990 (ninth). They finished in the top 25 for the 26th time in school history.
The Tigers now have nine seasons with double-digit wins, including the past two. In 2011, they went 10-4 and won the Atlantic Coast Conference for the first time since 1991. Before this run, they hadn’t reached 10-plus wins since 1990, when they went 10-2 for the fourth straight year.
Because the Tigers went 7-4 in 1984 — USC’s first year with at least 10 wins — the past two seasons are the only times that both teams reached double-digit victories. But this season’s combined record of 22-4 eclipses last season’s 21-6.