The South Carolina Gamecocks practiced for the last time on Palmetto State soil Friday, taking a Capital One Bowl “mini-camp” break for Christmas with plans to reconvene somewhere within Florida’s black hole of theme parks.
Coming next, a thrill ride visits Orlando.
Who’s afraid of Nebraska, or innovative scare-tactic technology?
Disney World and Universal Studios have nothing as fun and frightening as the best and weirdest football season in school history. Not even Gatorland’s Screamin’ Gator Zip Line — 1,200 feet over “Cuban and Nile crocodiles” and “130 giant alligators” — compares to a year of promise, heartbreak, glory, controversy, disturbing behavior and unprecedented achievement.
The Gamecocks since August have lost more key players and coaches than they did between the end of the 2010 season and the start of preseason workouts.
Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson gone to Southern Miss?
Top recruiter Jay Graham off to Tennessee?
No big deal, not for a team that went 10-2 while losing its best player (tailback Marcus Lattimore), only experienced passer (Stephen Garcia) and steadiest blocker (left tackle Kyle Nunn).
“We had a lot of distractions all year with Marcus leaving and Stephen gone, but I think we can overcome all of this,” senior defensive tackle Travian Robertson said when asked how things were going without Johnson and Graham.
South Carolina failed to successfully defend its 2010 SEC East title.
But at 6-2 finished with its best SEC record.
An undefeated regular season was a realistic possibility in August.
But South Carolina is a victory over the Cornhuskers away from the school’s first 11-win harvest.
Earning a chance to start the opener, sophomore quarterback Connor Shaw was benched against East Carolina.
Forced back into the lineup, he is 6-1 since a Kentucky start.
For the first time in Steve Spurrier’s coaching career, his program is due for NCAA probation, albeit relatively minor.
But the hurdles of 2011 make this Spurrier’s best coaching job since he somehow led Duke to a share of the 1989 ACC championship.
The Gamecocks with a clumsy 16-13 home loss to Auburn seemed on the verge of an early October collapse in stark context to Clemson’s 38-24 conquest of the same mediocre team.
But South Carolina capped the regular season with its third straight rout of Clemson to even Spurrier’s Gamecock record at 14-14 against top rivals Clemson, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee.
Spurrier caused a national stir when he refused to take part in his Tuesday news conference the week of the Mississippi State game unless a columnist left the room, an obvious attempt to distract media interest in Garcia’s dismissal the same day.
But the Head Ball Coach quickly relented, and the Gamecocks over the next two Saturdays won back-to-back road games to extend a streak to six.
None of it makes sense, including the part about Nunn.
The fifth-year senior is back in pads and practicing — not good for the Gamecocks, hoping earlier in the season to get a sixth-year medical redshirt exception that would allow Nunn to play in 2012.
But minus Nunn the offensive line helped South Carolina rush for 210 yards against Clemson.
“We’ve been a lot more physical than we have been,” freshman tackle Cody Gibson said of Capital One Bowl two-a-days, “and just getting after the D-line.”
And so the Gamecocks are off to sunny Florida.
It’s the most prestigious bowl game in program history.
South Carolina has lost three bowl games in a row, two key coaches, a running back and Stephen Garcia’s considerable experience.
But just like tourists vs. the toothy reptiles at Gatorland, they are favored.
Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 or Twitter.com/sapakoff