College football can be a crazy game.
One bounce of the ball, one fingertip can impact the sport in ways we can’t even comprehend. One play can trigger so much.
Since it’s June and the start of the season is still over two months away, I took a crack at what might have happened if one pass had fallen incomplete nearly eight years ago.
DISCLAIMER: THIS ARTICLE IS INTENDED TO BE AMUSING AND SPECULATIVE.
It all starts on an October night in Columbia in 2006. A national television audience is tuned in, College Gameday is in town, and Williams-Brice is packed with 82,011 fans.
Trailing 17-14 with just under 14 minutes left in the game, 8th-ranked Tennessee is facing a third-and-fifteen from the Gamecock 33-yard line. is backed up near its goal line. The Vols have committed a holding penalty, thrown an incompletion and seen a receiver get leveled on a five-yard gain in the last three plays. The Gamecock fans are deafening. Quarterback Eric Ainge is pressured heavily and, in this timeline, his pass to Jayson Swain sails high. Instead of a first down inside the Gamecock red zone, the Volunteers are forced to try a game-tying 50-yard field goal. James Wilhoit hooks it wide and South Carolina takes over. Syvelle Newton leads the Gamecocks on a scoring drive and it’s 24-14 with less than eight minutes remaining. Williams-Brice is in a frenzy and the memory of the 2005 loss to the Gamecocks creeps into the mind of everyone on Tennessee’s sideline. The Vols can’t make a comeback and South Carolina upsets the #8 team in the land. Second-year head coach Steve Spurrier has his biggest win as a Gamecock and Phillip Fulmer is 0-2 against Spurrier’s South Carolina teams.
Riding high off the win, South Carolina beats 12th-ranked Arkansas at home the following week and cracks the top 25. The Gamecocks drop a heartbreaker to Florida in Gainesville, but rebound with wins over Middle Tennessee and Clemson. After winning six of their last seven, the Gamecocks are invited to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, their first New Year’s Day appearance in five years. South Carolina beats Virginia Tech to cap a 10-3 season. Meanwhile, Tennessee drops three of its final four games and loses to Houston in the Liberty Bowl to finish 7-6. After going 12-12 over two years, Phillip Fulmer’s time in Knoxville comes to an end.
The Volunteers look hard at Southern Cal assistant coach Lane Kiffin, but he takes the head coaching job with the Oakland Raiders. Desperate to bring in a name that will satisfy an angry fan base, Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton throws everything he has at Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban. Tired of the NFL, Saban takes the job in Knoxville. The Dolphins, who are also wanting to please unsatisfied fans, make a popular choice by plucking Urban Meyer from Florida, where he has just won a national championship. The Gators hire California’s Jeff Tedford, who was a finalist for the job two years earlier and has just guided Cal to a 10-3 record and a share of the Pac-10 conference title.
Tedford, who prefers a running back-by-committee approach, arrives in Gainesville and immediately sees a way to improve Florida’s running between the tackles. Tim Tebow, a rising sophomore who saw limited action at quarterback during Florida’s championship run, is converted into a tailback. True freshman Cameron Newton wins the starting quarterback job for the Gators. With Newton and Tebow teaming up in the backfield, the Gators look primed to win the SEC again in 2007.
Meanwhile, in Knoxville, Nick Saban has spent his first months weeding out players and implementing his system. The Volunteers are 4-3 when 6th-ranked South Carolina comes to town. The Gamecocks are 7-1, fresh off a pummeling of Vanderbilt, and boasting their highest national ranking since 1984. The Vols play inspired football and trail 24-21 with five seconds remaining. Daniel Lincoln trots out to attempt a 48-yard field goal to send the game to overtime, but freshman defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who committed to the Gamecocks after an intense recruiting battle with Florida, blocks the kick to preserve the victory for South Carolina.
Dunlap and the Gamecock defense bottle up eventual Heisman winner Darren McFadden the following week and host Florida with the SEC East title on the line. The combination of Newton and Tebow proves to be too much and the Gators go back to Atlanta for the second consecutive season. South Carolina beats Clemson, then goes to the Capital One Bowl and knocks off Michigan for the first 11-win season in school history. Three years into his tenure in Columbia, Steve Spurrier owns a 28-10 overall record. Clemson’s interim coach, Dabo Swinney, is passed over after the loss to the Gamecocks, and the Tigers hire South Carolina native and Vanderbilt offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell.
The Gators are 12-1 and champions of the SEC, but their likely opponent in the national championship game is Ohio State. Florida beat the Buckeyes in the 2006 title game and few are looking forward to a rematch. Instead, after heavy campaigning, 11-2 Missouri is chosen to face the Gators. Fans and analysts are baffled. Missouri’s two losses on the season have both come against Oklahoma, the Big 12 champion. BCS director Bill Hancock points to Oklahoma’s two losses to unranked Colorado and Texas Tech, but the uproar won’t die down. Florida pounds the Tigers in New Orleans to claim it’s second national championship in two years.
In Knoxville, Nick Saban senses the gap between the SEC elite and his Tennessee squad widening. He spends much of the off-season railing against the BCS and pushing for a playoff. Instead of a playoff, the “Big 6″ conferences (SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-10, Big East, ACC) work out an agreement for all six conference champions to advance to a six-team playoff.
The playoff, set to begin in 2010, gives the BCS system two more years. Meanwhile, the SEC East has become a bloodbath. South Carolina is rolling behind Spurrier and the Newton/Tebow combo is setting rushing records in Gainesville. Saban’s Tennessee squad is on solid footing, but can’t break through into the upper echelon, while Mark Richt is in hot water for not being able to dethrone Florida or South Carolina. The Gators win the SEC and the national title again in 2008, their third championship in a row, while South Carolina finishes 11-2 for the second year in a row. Things are looking up for the Gamecocks, mostly because of the breakout freshman performance of A.J. Green, an in-state phenom who chose South Carolina over Georgia. The sting of losing highly-coveted quarterback recruit Stephen Garcia, who chose to stick with his home-state Gators in 2007, is eased after Garcia is kicked out of school for stealing a laptop in November.
South Carolina is undefeated heading into its 2009 matchup with Florida, but the Gators triumph yet again. Steve Spurrier hasn’t beaten his alma mater since 2005, but he guides the Gamecocks to a 11-1 regular season campaign and their first four-year winning streak over Clemson since the 1950s. Florida loses to LSU in the conference title game. The Gators, who lost to Virginia Tech in the season-opening “Kickoff Classic,” miss the national championship for the first time since 2005. LSU beats Texas in the championship game for the conference’s fourth consecutive title. In the final year of its existence, South Carolina goes to a BCS bowl, beating Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl for a 12-1 record, the best in school history.
The Gamecocks enter 2010 with true freshman Connor Shaw at quarterback. Despite the youth under center, South Carolina is loaded. A.J. Green and Alshon Jeffery lead the receiving corp, while Marcus Lattimore, the nation’s top running back prospect, is ready for his debut. Lattimore has also brought along a high school teammate; defensive end Corey Miller, who spurned Nick Saban and Tennessee and is expected to be a difference-maker on South Carolina’s defensive line, which already include Cliff Matthews and Ladi Ajiboye.
South Carolina cruises through the first half of its schedule. Lattimore shreds Georgia. The Gamecocks have no trouble with a Barrett Trotter-led Auburn on the road. Alabama offers little resistance. Neither does Kentucky, Vanderbilt or Tennessee, where rumors are rampant that Nick Saban may be on his way out after no division titles in his first four seasons. South Carolina’s undefeated season comes to an end at the hands of Arkansas, but the Gamecocks bounce back to beat a Florida team that no longer has Tebow, who graduated in 2009, or Newton, who made the early leap to the NFL. At 11-1, South Carolina makes its first-ever appearance in the SEC championship, squaring off against Arkansas for a spot in the playoffs. Shaw’s running ability proves to be the difference against an Arkansas team that seems distracted by head coach Bobby Petrino’s recent flirtations with NFL openings.
South Carolina enters the playoff as the #1 overall seed and earn a first-round bye. The Gamecocks knock off Andrew Luck and Stanford in the semifinals to reach the national championship in Glendale against Oregon. The matchup is hyped as a meeting of two of the best offensive minds in college football, Steve Spurrier and Chip Kelly. The stakes are even higher when it is revealed in the week leading up to the championship game that Jadeveon Clowney and De’Anthony Thomas, two of the nation’s top prospects, have both narrowed their college choices down to South Carolina and Oregon.
The game never lives up to its billing as an offensive shootout. Both defenses clamp down and the score stands at 19-19 late in the 4th quarter. With just two minutes remaining, Lattimore appears to be tackled after a five-yard run. However, the play is never blown dead and the freshman makes it all the way to the Oregon 23-yard line before he is brought down. The Ducks challenge the play, but replay shows that Lattimore’s knee stayed off the ground. Three plays later, Spencer Lanning drills a 19-yard field goal as time expires to give South Carolina its first national championship ever in football.
Steve Spurrier is interviewed on the podium as the confetti falls around him.
“Welp,” he says, “this national championship is pretty nice…but those five straight state championships ain’t bad either!”