So. Carolina, Iowa Strive To Compete With Nation's Elite
TAMPA - In 115 years of football, the South Carolina Gamecocks have just one 10-victory team. Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier - in a former Swamp life - once cranked out six consecutive 10-win seasons. "Everything is relative, I guess," Spurrier said. South Carolina is not Florida - not yet, maybe not ever.Four seasons into his Gamecocks tenure, Spurrier expected more. Namely, serious contention for the SEC title, possibly even a BCS bowl appearance. It hasn't happened. With goals readjusted, the Gamecocks (7-5) won't downplay the importance of today's Outback Bowl matchup against the Iowa Hawkeyes (8-4) at Raymond James Stadium. South Carolina, led by redshirt freshman quarterback Stephen Garcia (of Tampa's Jefferson High), desperately wants to enter its offseason in positive fashion, after being routed by Florida and Clemson. But Iowa, paced by Doak Walker Award-winning running back Shonn Greene, also has strong incentive. The Hawkeyes, buoyed by an upset of previously unbeaten Penn State, won five of their last six games. "Our goal in August is always to win the Big Ten championship," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "But we're also very realistic and know we're going to have to do things really right, maybe catch a break or two and have some good stories develop. That's really what it takes. "Chances are, three years from August, they'll probably be predicting Ohio State to win the Big Ten. Somebody might vote for Penn State. Somebody might vote for Michigan. That's just the way it is. The challenge is to try to get in the mix with those guys." Occasionally in its history, Iowa has met that challenge. Five times, the Hawkeyes have reached the Rose Bowl. South Carolina? "This Outback Bowl is the best bowl game in the history of our school," Spurrier said. Baby steps. The Gamecocks don't reside in a forgiving neighborhood. In the SEC East, the pecking order generally starts with Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. Under Spurrier, the Gamecocks have beaten each of those programs - but never a sweep in the same season. South Carolina also has lost twice against Vanderbilt. "They outplayed us both times," Spurrier said. For fans accustomed to the Florida version of Spurrier (122-27-1 with six outright SEC titles in 12 seasons), it's a strange sensation. Then again, South Carolina has reached three bowls in Spurrier's four seasons. Under South Carolina's theory of relativity, that means progress. "That has never happened before," Gamecocks senior offensive tackle Justin Sorensen said. "This program is getting better and better. Keep recruiting big-time players and South Carolina can be on top." You can almost hear the echoes of ESPN's Lee Corso. Not so fast, my friends! "No one is going to win the SEC title at South Carolina - no one," Corso said. "If anybody can do it, Spurrier can do it. But I don't think even he can do it. "I told Steve he's driving a Volkswagen and everybody else has a Ferrari. He said, 'How do you know that?' Well, I was at Indiana for 10 years. I had the Volkswagen. No matter how fast I drove, those Ferraris at Ohio State and Michigan kept buzzing past me. They had better cars. That was reality." But Spurrier sees possibilities. The Gamecocks should have one of the best recruiting classes in school history. South Carolina athletic director Eric Hyman said facilities have been upgraded, pointing out a new academic center, football training room and planned upgrades to Williams-Brice Stadium. "The folks in South Carolina are starting to understand there's a price for excellence," Hyman said. "Vision is expensive, but lack of vision is even more expensive. "When Steve got here, we were behind in facilities. Now we're catching up. We have incredible fan support. This program once had one victory in two years, yet season-ticket sales increased. Steve is bringing in more high-caliber recruits. Do that for several years, and it's a huge difference. He is making strides." Just not as quickly as he expected. "Right now, we're not terrible, but we're not tearing them up, either," Spurrier said. "We're just trying to get better." That effort - and South Carolina's long-term struggle to turn the corner - continues today at the Outback Bowl.
Reporter Joey Johnston can be reached at (813) 259-7353.