Ellis entered the 88 season as a Heisman Favorite
As SEC Media Days were ending in Birmingham, Alabama it was apparent that there was an unusual feeling surrounding the South Carolina Football program. That feeling was a hype that hasn't been seen for a South Carolina team in many years. With star players like Alshon Jeffery, Devin Taylor and Marcus Lattimore returning the Gamecocks were picked to win the SEC East for the second straight year. Everything is in place for the Gamecocks to be a BCS contender in 2011, but will their fate end the same as another hyped Gamecock team from 23 years ago?
The 1987 Gamecocks became one of the surprise teams of College Football that year. After a 3-6-2 season, the 87 team finished 8-4 with its only losses coming to top 15 teams Georgia, LSU, Nebraska, and Miami. The Gamecocks were ranked as high as #8 in the country that season with the biggest winning coming over a top 10 Clemson team in Columbia. The team was led by All American Sterling Sharpe, who would later become one of the top NFL wide receivers for the next decade. This was a team that was talented on offense and defense, but most felt it would be 1988 before the Gamecocks would contend for a national championship.
Despite losing Sharpe for the 1988 season, the Gamecocks were loaded at every position. QB Todd Ellis entered 1988 as one of the leading Heisman Candidates nationally. At running back the Gamecocks featured Harold Green, who had rushed for over 1,000 yards in 1987 and was also solid at catching the ball out of the backfield. Replacing Sharpe would be another future Green Bay Packer in Robert Brooks. The offense had been one of the first in college football to run a run n' shoot in 1987, but was switching to a more pro style attack led by offensive coordinator Al Groh(future Virginia head coach).
On defense the Gamecocks were coming off a season where they allowed only 11 points per game. They had lost star player Brad Edwards from a season ago, but the aggressive defense led by Joe Lee Dunn was expected to produce big results again in 1988. Ron Rabune, Derrick Frazier, Patrick Hinton, and Corey Miller were going to be the leaders of this group. This was a group that in 87 was one of only three teams(A&M and Oklahoma the others) that were top 10 nationally in pass defense, run defense, total defense, and scoring defense.
The hype going into the preseason could be seen in many of the nation's top magazines. Football Action Magazine ranked the Gamecocks #3 in their preseason poll and favored USC to win all of its games except the season finale against Clemson. "Joe Morrison has produced a winning team with his five years at South Carolina, and the sixth year could be the charm" said Football Action, "The Gamecocks should easily be one of the nation's best". Street & Smith's Magazine put Todd Ellis on their cover touting him as a Heisman Candidate. They hype was there and Gamecock fans were ready to start a magical season.
The season started as most expected for the Gamecocks. Blowout wins over North Carolina, East Carolina, and Western Carolina established USC as the best team named "Carolina". Then in a televised game against Georgia in week 4 the Gamecocks proved they were one of the best teams nationally. Highlighted by an amazing one handed TD catch by Robert Brooks, The Gamecocks whipped the Bulldogs 23-10. After a week 5 win over Appalachian State there was no doubt this team would be a National Championship contender as USC was in the top 10 and it looked like a November 5 showdown against Florida State would feature two top 5 teams in Columbia.
Then things started getting odd. South Carolina struggled in Blacksburg to beat a bad Virginia Tech team, that was in year two under Frank Beamer. The Gamecocks had to rally back after Tech dominated most of the game and only won by a score of 26-24 against the 1-4 Hokies. Despite the struggle, it was a win and most Gamecock fans felt good about the second half of the schedule....... that was until an October 8 game against Georgia Tech.
South Carolina was a 3 touchdown favorite going into its game against Bobby Ross' Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. The Jackets were only 1-4 and had lost 15 straight games to Division I opponents with their last win coming in the 1986 season against Duke. This should've been an easy win for South Carolina, but instead Todd Ellis was seen throwing more passes to Tech defenders than Gamecock receivers it seemed and Tech pulled off the huge upset 34-0. Gamecock Nation was devastated and hopes of a National Championship and a possible Orange Bowl Birth were all but destroyed.
The Gamecocks were able to recover and beat a good NC State team in Raleigh, thanks to 3 Patrick Hinton interceptions, but the team was never the same after the Tech loss. Florida State came to town and whipped the Gamecocks like they never have been whipped in Columbia 59-0. Then in a season ending game against Clemson, their offense once again failed to produce in a 29-10 loss to the Tigers.
South Carolina did accept a Liberty Bowl birth in 1988, but that too ended not to well as Anthony Thompson and the Indiana Hoosiers beat the Gamecocks on a frigid night 34-10. This ended one of the most disappointing finishes in USC history as USC finished the year 8-4 and unranked.
A season of so much hope saw USC only average 19 points per game. Heisman Trophy Candidate Todd Ellis ended the year with only 9 TD passes and 21 interceptions ending any consideration for an invitation to New York. The 88 Gamecocks that started 6-0, failed to cover in 6 of their final 7 games. To make things even worse, head coach Joe Morrison who had won National Coach of the Year honors the year prior, died of a heart attack 2 months after the 88 season ended.
South Carolina Football, which seemed like a program on the rise under Morrison, would not recover. Sparky Woods and Brad Scott would follow Joe Morrison, but neither produced a top 25 team. The program hit a low point in 1999 when USC finished the year 0-11 and had a 21 game losing streak. Lou Holtz had two good teams in 2000 and 2001, but neither won a SEC Championship.
Fast forward 23 years later and the Steve Spurrier Gamecocks are being mentioned by most as the team to beat in the SEC East. South Carolina is getting voted in the preseason top 15 by most and Marcus Lattimore is being featured as a Heisman Candidate by many. Will this team be able to put it all together and become legendary or will they suffer the fate of the hyped 88 squad? My bet is this time Gamecock Fans will be spending the Christmas Holidays in a much better place than frigid Memphis, TN.