The extreme level of ambiguity towards defining success in college football is unique to the sport. That ambiguity is ingrained in the game's origins. It is part of its beauty. It is also confounding.
The mystique surrounding the subject resonates back to the fact that, throughout its history, college football did not recognize a national champion, instead delegating that responsibility to various publications. Most years only one team can claim a title, but there are years when two, three and even four teams can claim the distinction. Thankfully, we have a national championship game now, courtesy of the BCS and now the College Football Playoff. But the history of the sport left a trail of mythical national champions. As long as there has been college football, there has been a multitude of ways of determining success.
In the confinement of a singular season, the success of a team can be defined by achieving a winning season, earning a spot in a New Year's Six bowl, reaching a conference championship, winning a rivalry game and, of course, winning a title.
South Carolina did none of those things in 2016.
And still, it's hard not to classify this past season as a success, at least from my perspective.
Before the season started, I wrote about a potential roadmap for this program's rebuild after they won just one SEC game in 2015. I examined the rebuilding models that other teams in the SEC followed, and the trait that most successful teams shared is that they were able to develop some type of identity in their rebuilding years. They might not have achieved winning seasons immediately, but they used their losing seasons to really study their roster inside and out.
The Gamecocks did that in 2016. They saw what their offense looked like with Perry Orth under center, with Brandon McIlwain under center and finally with Jake Bentley under center. With Bentley, it looked pretty good. Not always dynamic, but pretty good — especially with a healthy Deebo Samuel and Rico Dowdle to supplement Bentley's skill set. In South Carolina's overtime loss to South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl, every single yard from scrimmage the Gamecocks gained was accounted for by a sophomore or freshman.
Trusting their youth really paid off. The Gamecocks didn't have a quarterback of the future heading into the season and they didn't appear to have a running back ready to handle the majority of their carries. They have both of those things now. Their receiving corps lacked any resemblance of certainty behind Deebo Samuel, but Bryan Edwards emerged as a really strong vertical threat, compiling 590 yards as a freshman. Kurt Roper and Bryan McClendon helped transform a 23-year old former minor league baseball player into a tight-end that set a program record for receptions at his position.
The offense's identity has emerged with its young nucleus of talent. The only real lingering question mark on that side of the ball is the offensive line. The defense wore down, no question, but the unit did excel in the red-zone. In particularly the secondary and linebacking corps overachieved their preseason expectations.
When writing our football tab next fall, you won't find the words "uncertainty" and "inexperience" in every other paragraph of our positional previews. You probably won't even find an article about rebuilding, you might find one about competing instead.
Yes, the Gamecocks reached a bowl game, which was unexpected — especially given the slow start. That doesn't quantify the season as a success for me on its own merit, although the near-comeback the Gamecocks staged was definitely encouraging. The progression of the team's identity — and the creativity Will Muschamp and his staff expressed to nurture that identity — that makes the season for me.
Lastly, I want to thank our readership for making it possible for our staff to cover this team and this season. I want to congratulate the players, the administration and the fans on a very successful 2016 season.