Has South Carolina Really Improved?

Lisa Horne@LisaHornePac-12 and Big 12 Lead WriterAugust 16, 2008

5-7, 6-6, 7-5, 7-5, and 6-6. Those numbers represent the last five year's regular season records for the South Carolina Gamecocks.

Yet, read any article about the SEC, and the Gamecocks are being described as "vastly improved" or "much improved."

Why? Because they are beating their non-conference and weaker conference foes.

In 2003, three of their five wins were over La.-Lafayette, Virginia and UAB. The other two wins? Over Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

In 2004, they won two of their three non-conference games, beating Troy and South Florida. They also beat Vanderbilt, Alabama, Kentucky, and Arkansas.

In 2005, they had non-conference wins over Central Florida and Troy, and beat Kentucky, Vanderbilt, No. 23 Tennessee, and No. 12 Florida. On paper, this was their best record in the last five years.

2006 saw the Gamecocks beat Wofford (FCS team), Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee, and No. 24 Clemson in non-conference play, and Mississippi State, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, in conference play. Four of their seven wins came from non-conference games, with Clemson being the only quality team they beat.

Which brings us to 2007.

The Gamecocks went 3-1 in non-conference play, beating La.-Lafayette, South Carolina State (FCS team) and North Carolina, while losing to No. 21 Clemson. In conference play, they beat No. 11 Georgia, Mississippi State, and No. 8 Kentucky, although Kentucky finished the season not ranked in the top 25.

They also lost to Vanderbilt—a team that only beat two SEC teams—and then tanked the last five games of the season after being over-ranked at No. 6 in the nation.

The Gamecocks did beat Georgia and Kentucky, but they usually do beat Kentucky, no matter how "improved" or overrated Kentucky is.

While the Georgia win was impressive, the Dawgs didn't really gather a big head of steam until the last six games of the season. But give them credit anyway, they deserve it.

But does it really mean you are improved if you upset another team? Is Stanford improved because they beat USC? Is Louisiana-Monroe improved after beating Alabama? Or are those games just flukes?

If you look at the Gamecocks' past five years, they haven't improved. In fact, with the new 12-game season starting in 2006, the Gamecocks have had extra wins due to the extra cupcake on their schedule.

More than 50 percent of their wins in 2006 came from beating Wofford, Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee and Clemson. While Clemson is a quality win, the other three are not.

The wins over Louisiana-Lafayette, South Carolina State, and North Carolina in 2007 also accounted for 50 percent of their total wins. So although they beat Georgia, Mississippi State and Kentucky, they still had a losing record in their conference.

They are getting over the .500 mark due to four non-conference games on their schedule. When 50 percent of your wins are over soft teams (and North Carolina is no slouch, but it wasn't a Clemson last year), how can they be described as improved?

For the last five years, South Carolina's record in conference play has been 2-6, 4-4, 5-3,  3-5,  and 3-5. Just where is their improvement in the SEC?

While every team can get an occasional upset in their own conference, one year's big win over a team that hadn't hit their stride yet is certainly not proof that the Gamecocks are a team on the rise.

One could argue that they are making the games closer, and that the cream of the crop SEC teams are getting stronger, thus accounting for the Gamecocks' poor conference showing. But if a team doesn't keep up with the rest of the conference's rise, then it isn't improving.

Last year, South Carolina had beaten Louisiana-Lafayette and Georgia, and was ranked No. 17 with that 2-0 record. When they beat an FCS team (South Carolina State), they moved up five spots in the polls to No. 12. The Gamecocks then lost to LSU, and dropped to No. 16.

Just how does a team get ranked higher after losing than when they were undefeated?

Now here is where it gets interesting. The Gamecocks beat Mississippi State to jump to No. 11, beat Kentucky to be in the top ten at No. 7, beat North Carolina and suddenly were No. 6.

Of course, they inexplicably dropped the next five games—four of them being to quality teams—and suddenly, that No. 6 ranking looked rather suspicious, much like Kentucky's No. 8 ranking before losing four of their last seven.

So what about this year? Well, the Gamecocks will probably be 4-1 after the first five games, beating NC State, Vanderbilt, Wofford and UAB, but losing to Georgia. Will they be highly ranked after a 4-1 start? Probably, and that's what is wrong with the polls.

The next four games are Ole Miss, Kentucky, LSU and Tennessee. Two probable wins there give them a 6-3 record, and out of the Top 25.

They finish their season with Arkansas, Florida and Clemson. Let's give them the Arkansas game due to the Petrino hire and no D-Mac or Felix Jones.

The Gamecocks finish 7-5, and will most likely go bowling after beating Wofford, NC State, Vanderbilt, UAB, Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Arkansas.

Improvement? From an overall record standpoint, yes, but two of their four projected conference wins are over teams with a 2007 losing record (Vandy 5-7, Ole Miss 3-9) .

The other two are over teams that lost much of their big talent (Kentucky's Andre' Woodson, Arkansas' D-Mac and Felix Jones, plus a new coach hire) and are expected to have a big drop-off this year.

South Carolina may upset one of the big boys, but then could lose to a lower-tiered conference foe as well, judging by their past history.

In the end, Spurrier's Gamecocks will end up just a little over .500, and Gamecock Nation can celebrate a bowl berth.

But they can thank the added fourth non-conference game for that bowl berth. Heap the accolades on Spurrier if you must, but last year, Spurrier's Gamecocks received the same praise in the preseason and didn't live up to the hype.

Deep down, recognize that the probable bowl berth this year is a product of the system, and not improvement.