As the regular season comes to an end, it's time for Gamecock football fans to put the past 12 months into perspective. Although Saturday night was rough, the program is in a much better spot than it was at the end of the 2020 season — and South Carolina has head coach Shane Beamer and the fifth-year seniors to thank.
364 days before the Gamecocks took the field against the Clemson Tigers to cap the 2021 regular season, South Carolina got blown out 45-16 by No. 7 Georgia on its home field. It was the Gamecocks' seventh loss of the season, eliminating them from bowl eligibility in any normal season. To put it lightly, the team was in shambles.
This year, South Carolina played with a vastly different roster. Several players left starting when former head coach Will Muschamp got fired. Beamer came into Columbia with very little to work with, but now the Gamecocks are sitting with a bowl date in their future.
No one was expecting the Gamecocks to make a bowl this season after all the departures last season.
“So happy for our players. It’s a special group in there,” Beamer said after the Auburn game.
This season's success all began with the seniors who came back and used their extra year of eligibility to play for the Gamecocks. One of them was defensive back Jaylan Foster.
“Special group," Foster said after the Clemson game. "A lot of us, we made the decision to come back for an extra year. Been through a lot with those guys, I'm gonna miss them. I just hope we left this place in a better area than it was.”
That group of fifth-years was tight-knit, even including those who transferred to USC for their fifth and final season, according to Beamer. One of which, Zeb Noland, came in as a graduate assistant, became the starter and ultimately led the Gamecocks to a couple of victories.
“It was good to be back out there. I love this group of seniors. I told them last night, the reason I came back was to play with those guys. It hurts but, gotta move on and get ready for the bowl game,” Noland said.
The last time the Gamecocks made a bowl was the 2018 season, so a lot of USC players will get their first opportunity to play meaningful December football this season. It will also be their last month together as a team, a time that Gamecock fans will hopefully remember as the start of a rebuild to greatness.
It did not take long, but Beamer has turned this program from a bottom-dweller, into a team that will compete every night, no matter the score.
“This is just the beginning of Carolina football. We’re not going anywhere. We’re only continuing to get better and continuing to work so we don’t have nights like these,” Beamer said.
No team will win every game at the beginning of a rebuild. But, the hope that Gamecock fans had for this program on Saturday should say a lot. They did not expect to be stepped over like in the previous four meetings.
This season, Carolina football fans have the hope week in and week out it will be a good one, unlike a year ago, when they were just hoping for the season to be over.
The future is bright.