Heading into Williams-Brice Stadium, I expected a coronation. Instead, I witnessed a funeral.
Actually, that isn’t entirely true. Instead of seeing South Carolina stake its claim for the SEC East crown and a spot in this year’s College Football Playoff, the 82,847 in attendance last night watched Texas A&M sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill go from “guy who in no way will be able to do what Johnny Manziel did” to “upstart Aggies star with real Heisman buzz.”
In the hours before the game, however, Hill was an afterthought, if he was a thought at all for Gamecocks fans. Every available plot of land along Bluff Road, or in the Williams-Brice lots or South Carolina fairgrounds were covered by tents and tailgates. Restaurants, gas stations, and front lawns were all up for grabs for the right price, except for Aggies fans, in certain places. Parties featured televisions and satellite dishes, DJs with turntables, kiddie pools, grills and smokers, and ridiculous spreads of food and drink. While there was some nervous energy among some South Carolina fans pregame, it was almost entirely about the season as a whole, with all of its grand expectations. No one that I spoke to had any doubts about the Texas A&M game, many assumed it would be a three touchdown Gamecocks win, and most couldn’t pick Kenny Hill or Ricky Seals-Jones out of a lineup.
There was no notion that Thursday night would be different than any of the previous 18 games, all Gamecock wins, at Williams-Brice. “Sandstorm” blared, towels were waved, fireworks blasted off…and just over three and a half minutes of game time later, Tra Carson broke the goal line for the Aggies first score. The South Carolina fans a few seats down were annoyed, but not totally surprised.
“This is South Carolina football. We always start slow in the first half.”
South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson, who like Hill has the task of replacing one of his school’s all-time greats, connected on a 69-yard bomb to Nick Jones a few minute later, to pull the Gamecocks back into the game. It seemed like we were in for a shootout. By the end of the second quarter, when Hill would lead the Aggies to another three touchdowns, the narrative from my South Carolina neighbors had changed.
“This is Tennessee all over again.”
South Carolina has a bit of a history of losing games it shouldn’t, but not usually this early in the year, at least in the recent stretch of success under Steve Spurrier, and not at home. By the middle of the third quarter, when Carson ran another short touchdown in through an overmatched Gamecock defensive line to push the score to 45-21, the exodus began. “Tennessee all over again” became “this is WORSE than Tennessee,” and all of a sudden section 309 in the southwest corner of Williams-Brice had all but cleared out.
Watching conference and national championship hopes turn into total despair in about two or three hours is something to behold. Before the game, USC fans were mapping out a path to Atlanta. At the tailgate spot afterwards, there was a strange mix of silence, and forced laughter, those who wanted to break down every play, those who wanted to ban any mention of the game, and those who were prepared to swear off the sport altogether, because the losses hurt too much. Next week’s game against ECU went from inconsequential to a very possible loss, and the hype for week three’s showdown with SEC East co-favorite Georgia turned into sheer dread. Even though there are still months of football left to play, and plenty of chances to get back into the running for an SEC title, the dream had all but died.
However, football is only part of the equation on an SEC Saturday, even if it is the raison d’être for the entire culture.
“So, are you going to go to ECU then?”
“So you’re just going to stay at home?”
“Oh, of course not, we still have to tailgate.”
The SEC Championship may now seem like a daunting task for a team that was a favorite to reach that game 24 hours ago, and the playoff now feels like a total pipe dream, but next week when the Pirates come to Columbia, there will still be over 80,000 in the stands, and thousands more in the parking lots watching on TV or waiting to hear massive cheers. Students will still go crazy when “Sandstorm” starts, and with a win, some faith will be renewed heading into the showdown with Georgia. Eventually, the Texas A&M game will be a footnote, like Tennessee and the other bad losses before it, and the Gamecocks fans will get the championship itch once again. As of Thursday night, 2014 doesn’t feel like it will be the year, but college football has a strange way of surprising us all.