March 13, 2009

Mailbag: South Carolina's struggles will continue

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Coaching a college football team to a conference championship isn't easy.

Leading more than one program to a league title is incredibly difficult. In fact, of the 120 active coaches in the Football Bowl Subdivision, only five have claimed championships at different schools.

Only one Arizona State's Dennis Erickson has captured championships with three different programs. He directed Miami to Big East crowns in 1991, '92 and '94 and shared Pac-10 championships at Oregon State in 2000 and Arizona State in '07.

Another coach has a shot at hitting that trifecta. But to do so would mean leading one of the most mediocre FBS programs to its first championship in four decades.

Carolina dreams

From Henry in Sumter, S.C.: So what do you think it will take for Steve Spurrier to bring South Carolina football to national prominence? Do you think he will be able to do it, or do you think it will be a young guy after him? I have been a fan for many years and have endured a lot of heartache waiting for this.

Few groups of fans if any have suffered like South Carolina's. The Gamecocks haven't won a conference championship since taking the ACC title in 1969. Of course, South Carolina was an independent from 1971 until joining the SEC in 1992, so there were no opportunities to win conference championships then.

Still, in that span, South Carolina rarely managed more than seven wins. And the almost-glorious 1984 season in which the Gamecocks reached No. 2 in the polls was ruined by a 17-point loss to Navy in November.

Your heartache is understood.

Lou Holtz brought hope and good seasons in 2000 and '01, then South Carolina slid back into mediocrity. That led to the hiring of Spurrier and realistic dreams that the Gamecocks could join the nation's elite.

It hasn't quite happened. Not yet, anyway. But you don't need me to tell you that.

The Gamecocks have come close under Spurrier. They have not endured a losing record under Spurrier, and given South Carolina's history, that's no small accomplishment.

Remember, the Gamecocks were 6-1 and ranked No. 6 in the nation midway through '07. Then, they had four turnovers in a 17-6 loss to Vanderbilt, fell to Tennessee in overtime, then collapsed and closed the season with three more losses to finish 6-6.

Surely, fans can't help but wonder what would have happened had the Gamecocks won those two games. Everything might have been different.

The '09 outlook for South Carolina is uncertain. Seven offensive and six defensive starters are back from a seven-win team. But three players left early for the NFL draft, including two starters in the secondary, and that hurts.

Still, South Carolina's defense made tremendous progress under coordinator Ellis Johnson last season, when the Gamecocks improved to 13th nationally in total defense from 56th in 2007. Linebacker Eric Norwood is back and so are three returning starters on the defensive line, so the Gamecocks again figure to be solid defensively.

But South Carolina won't be a serious contender in the SEC East until Spurrier finds a quarterback who performs to his expectations. Over the past three seasons, he has shuffled Blake Mitchell, Syvelle Newton, Chris Smelley, Tommy Beecher and Stephen Garcia in and out of the lineup.

Garcia might be the answer, but he has had numerous off-field issues. Maybe he'll mature and become the quarterback Spurrier wants. If not, the Gamecocks likely will continue to be a team that can't be overlooked but can't be overestimated, either.

And if Spurrier can't lead the Gamecocks to among the elite in the SEC, maybe it just cannot be done.

Good enough

From Al in North Carolina: I would like to know: 1. What do you think about Wake Forest finishing in the top two (or first) in the ACC? 2. Is Riley Skinner the best player or quarterback in the conference? 3. Can you explain why Skinner and running back Josh Adams are not getting any Heisman coverage?

1. I think Wake Forest has an excellent chance to win the ACC's Atlantic Division, which doesn't have a dominant team. Replacing the production of linebacker Aaron Curry and cornerback Alphonso Smith will be difficult, but the offense will be effective with Skinner heading a list of nine returning starters. Even if the Deacons do prevail in the Atlantic Division, my pick to win the ACC championship is Virginia Tech.

2. Skinner is a good quarterback. He doesn't make many mistakes, which is illustrated by his mere seven interceptions last season. But he only threw 13 touchdown passes. He strikes me as the type of player who manages a game more than takes one over. The best quarterback in the conference? North Carolina State's Russell Wilson was mighty impressive last season. Only a freshman, he was carried off on a stretcher with a concussion in the first game of the season. But he came back to throw at least two touchdown passes in each of the last six games and led the Wolfpack to a bowl. Georgia Tech's Josh Nesbitt doesn't throw much, but he did a tremendous job in directing the Yellow Jackets' triple-option offense. My pick for best quarterback would be Wilson. To me, the ACC's best player would either be Clemson running back C.J. Spiller, Georgia Tech running back Jonathan Dwyer or Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich.

3. There are too many other quarterbacks Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy, Sam Bradford, Todd Reesing, Jevan Snead putting up huge performances week after week for Skinner to upstage them for Heisman consideration. Adams has not been productive enough to be considered a Heisman contender.

MWC upgrade?

From Kyle in San Diego: I've heard rumblings that the Mountain West could expand soon, perhaps as early as June when it holds its annual conference meeting. Should the Mountain West expand and try to gain notable programs such as Fresno State and/or Boise State? Will it happen? Also, how soon can San Diego State turn around its program?

Adding Western Athletic Conference champion Boise State seemingly would make the Mountain West even more attractive and enhance its bid to become an automatic qualifier in the BCS.

The Mountain West has acknowledged informal discussions about expansion, but in January, commissioner Craig Thompson went on record to say that won't happen.

"We've talked about it as a league, but right now we're in a good position to do what we need to do: play quality competition, beat quality competition and win BCS bowl games," Thompson said then. " I don't think [expansion is] the pressing issue in the league because right now, we have proven with nine institutions [that] what we're doing is the right thing."

MWC spokesman Javan Hedlund said this week that the issue of expansion has not been on the agenda for the conference's spring or fall joint council meetings or Board of Directors meetings. Therefore, don't expect the MWC to add a 10th member.

But it's not out of the question that something could happen in the future.

As for San Diego State, that's truly one of the great mysteries of college football. San Diego is a beautiful city. The weather is amazing. There are legions of talented football players in southern California.

There are so many, in fact, that San Diego State should be able to build a solid program just from the guys who didn't get Pac-10 offers.

San Diego State should be to California what TCU is to Texas. I don't know why it isn't.

Eight not enough

From Dave in Pittsburgh: I have no question, just a statement. You told Alyssa from England that the Big East is the worst of the six BCS football conferences. You are dead wrong about that. For the past three seasons, the Big East has a winning bowl record and the 2008 RPI rankings had the Big East rated third in conference rankings, behind the Big 12 and the SEC. Big East teams were collectively 19 games over .500 last season and six of eight teams were in the RPI top 40. By the way, the Mountain West was ranked sixth. Just because there were no bona-fide top-10 teams in the Big East last season does not mean the conference stinks. Do you homework before you make statements based on perception rather than fact.

Here are some facts.

Last season, in games against other "Big Six" conference teams (and Notre Dame), the Big East went 11-9. It should be noted that those "Big Six" conference teams that were beaten by the Big East were a combined 57-56 (a .504 winning percentage).

By comparison, ACC teams were 17-14 against "Big Six" competition. Furthermore, the teams beaten by the ACC were 92-80 (a .535 winning percentage). To summarize, the ACC had virtually the same winning percentage against "Big Six" teams and played better competition.

The Pac-10 was 10-8 vs. "Big Six" competition. The teams beaten by the Pac-10 were a combined 76-51 (.598 percentage).

The Big Ten struggled in 2008. Big Ten teams were 7-13 against other "Big Six" competition, and the victories came over teams that were a combined 32-43.

But check the Big Ten losses in bowl games. Big Ten teams lost to USC, Texas, Georgia, Missouri, Kansas and Florida State. Maybe it's just me, but I see close losses to Texas and Missouri as far more impressive than blowout wins over Buffalo and Memphis.

That doesn't mean the Big East doesn't play solid college football. But I still think, top to bottom, it's the weakest of the "Big Six" conferences.

No worries

From Klaas in Izegem, Belgium: USC loses nine starters on defense. Where do you think the Trojans will end up in 2009?

USC has recruited so well this decade that it's one of those teams that can lose most of its starters and still come back strong the way Miami used to be.

USC will continue to play at a high level, be a strong contender to win the Pac-10 again and finish in the top 10 nationally.

The Trojans might slip some because they've lost so much talent. I don't think they will slip much, though.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for He can be reached at
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