South Carolina gets to prove that the end of 2022 was the beginning of something bigger

South Carolina football players

Tennessee and Clemson both had a realistic shot at the 2022 College Football Playoff. They both had a path to the biggest showcase of the sport, a golden chance to make a major statement with Alabama not in the playoff field and an unproven Michigan team being a foremost playoff contender.

Matt Zemek,

In the course of time, we eventually saw that Michigan was not as strong as its ranking and record suggested. TCU, a team completely off everyone’s radar (and rightly so!), made the national championship game.

Tennessee and Clemson both would have loved their chances against TCU or Michigan in a hypothetical playoff game.

The South Carolina Gamecocks prevented the Vols and Tigers from getting that chance.

In the case of the Clemson game, the Gamecocks benefited from Clemson’s inconsistency at quarterback and the Tigers’ limited offensive scheme. Clemson was not the Clemson we had been accustomed to seeing over the past several years. That’s why Dabo Swinney brought aboard Garrett Riley from TCU to take his offense and his program (back) to the next level.

Nevertheless, the idea that South Carolina football could fight well enough and stay in the arena long enough to win on the road in Clemson – breaking the Tigers’ 40-game home-field winning streak – represented a titanic feat for the Gamecock program. Anyone who watched South Carolina stumble through the first several weeks of the 2022 college football season wouldn’t have imagined this team could remotely sniff a victory against the in-state rival which had made six straight College Football Playoff appearances from 2015 through 2020 and had reached four college football national championship games in the seven seasons preceding 2022. South Carolina displayed levels of toughness and resilience the Gamecocks didn’t know they had. That road upset of an established college football power not only eliminated Clemson from the playoff; it sent the message that what happened the previous week was no fluke.

One week before the Clemson upset, South Carolina eviscerated Tennessee. It’s true that Hendon Hooker got injured in that game, but he didn’t make a difference when he played, and he wasn’t going to make a difference if he stayed in the game. South Carolina scored 35 points in the first half and 63 for the game. The Gamecocks were in charge of that contest from the start, and the Vols were playing catch-up with a defense which plainly didn’t show up.

The near-flawless performance against Tennessee was a team effort, to be sure, but one man stood at the heart of the action. He struggled to play quarterback early in the 2021 season. He was benched in favor of another quarterback named Caleb Williams.

Yes, this was not at South Carolina. This was at the University of Oklahoma. Spencer Rattler couldn’t put the pieces together for an OU team which was the preseason No. 2 team in the country heading into the 2021 season. He couldn’t deal with the pressure. He also didn’t have Caleb Williams’ skill set. Williams dazzled in his freshman year at Oklahoma, a preview of what was to come under Lincoln Riley in 2022 at “the other USC,” as Gamecock fans would tell you.

Whether Rattler’s identity and reputation were soured primarily by his own failures, or cast into sharper relief by Caleb Williams’ brilliance, was a point of debate, yet ultimately irrelevant. What mattered is that Rattler’s career had taken a turn for the worse. He could have stayed at Oklahoma under Brent Venables in 2022, but he chose to transfer to South Carolina, where Shane Beamer had already established a relationship with him, given that Beamer worked on Riley’s Oklahoma staff in 2020 when Rattler led OU to a conference title and a Cotton Bowl victory. He had a head coach who knew him and understood him. It seemed like a reasonable-enough choice to make. At South Carolina, there would be some expectations, but nowhere near the scrutiny and pressure Rattler had to endure in the Oklahoma fishbowl. Yet, through the first 10 games of the 2022 South Carolina season, Rattler had not become the dynamic quarterback so many college football fans and analysts hoped he would be. He showed glimpses, but rarely the regularity of performance which sets the elite quarterbacks apart from the mediocre ones. Rattler was closer to ordinary than special through the first 10 games. Everyone in Columbia wondered if a breakthrough was ever going to occur.

The Tennessee game was that breakthrough. Rattler was lethal and devastating, hitting quick strikes and downfield passes with equal amounts of skill and savvy. After 10 games in which the pieces of the puzzle didn’t quite fit, everything snapped into place. The Clemson game one week later wasn’t nearly as precise or dazzling, but Rattler made clutch plays and led his team with distinction. Tennessee was the sprawling display of football acumen, Clemson the road-game test of toughness Rattler passed with flying colors. Two different victories, both significant and both coming against high-profile opponents with everything to play for, completely reset everyone’s expectations for the quarterback.

South Carolina fans, Shane Beamer, national college football analysts, South Carolina teammates – lots of people saw a different Spencer Rattler and gained fresh reason to believe that he could lead the Gamecocks to great heights in the future. Yet, the most important person whose outlook on Spencer Rattler had changed was the man himself.

Rattler needed to see what an elite performance looked like. Rattler needed to be the author and orchestrator of a great conquest, the kind of game he never really produced at Oklahoma unless you count the Cotton Bowl win over a good-not-great Florida team with a very leaky defense.

After that Tennessee game, Rattler’s presence on the South Carolina roster and in the Gamecocks’ huddle became different. That presence, that leadership, manifested against Clemson. Now the Gamecocks enter 2023 hoping this is the man who will quarterback them not just in one or two games, but in every game.

If that happens, the Gamecocks will have a lot to crow about this season.

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