Gamecocks face more difficult SEC schedule in 2008

What happened to 6-1?

What happened to the No. 6 ranking in the first BCS standings?

More importantly, what happened to the team that the Head Ball Coach predicted back in August was ready to compete for the SEC championship?

Maybe he meant to say "pretend to compete," because South Carolina's collapse during the second half of the season was the kind of thing Gamecocks' fans have suffered through since they began fielding teams in Columbia.

Raise your hand if you're envisioning Charlie Brown trying to kick that football and Lucy yanking it away right at the last minute.

That's South Carolina football in a nutshell.

It was supposed to be different under Steve Spurrier and may still be, but even one of the game's most renowned minds is finding out that building a championship team at South Carolina (and doing it in the SEC's Eastern Division) is a Herculean task.

This is the first time one of Spurrier's teams hasn't been in a bowl game since his first year at Florida in 1990 when the Gators were on NCAA probation and ineligible to go. It's also the most losses Spurrier has suffered in a season as a college head coach since his first team at Duke finished 5-6 in 1987.

"We've learned some humility around here. I've learned some. I think the whole team has learned some," Spurrier said. "We won our last three [games] last year. We lost our last five this year. In the last game [a 23-21 loss to Clemson], we were a better call offensively, a better call defensively and some better execution from being 7-5, the same record we had last year … but we didn't do it."

For the record, Spurrier is now 21-16 in his three years at South Carolina with one bowl win. Lou Holtz's best three-year stretch in Columbia was 22-14 from 2000-2002 with two bowl wins.

The difference is that Spurrier has been able to beat Georgia, Florida and Tennessee. Holtz never beat Florida or Tennessee at South Carolina.

Many of South Carolina's problems this season revolved around a defense that couldn't stop the run. The Gamecocks (6-6) were last in the SEC in rushing defense and were never the same after middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley was lost for the season in the LSU game.

Spurrier hired former Georgia defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder to replace Tyrone Nix, who bolted for Mississippi. He also hired Ray Rychleski from Maryland to oversee special teams after the Gamecocks had three punts blocked in their last two games of the 2007 season, one of those returned for a touchdown.

With 10 of 11 starters returning, the Gamecocks should be better on defense next season, particularly if Brinkley makes a full recovery after tearing up his right knee. When healthy, he's one of the best middle linebackers in the league.

In vintage Spurrier style, he never really settled on a quarterback this season. Fifth-year senior Blake Mitchell was the guy to start the season. Then redshirt freshman Chris Smelley got his chance and helped guide the Gamecocks to their 6-1 start. But just prior to the Vanderbilt game, Spurrier announced that he was also going to play Mitchell.

Sure enough, South Carolina was abysmal offensively against Vanderbilt with one pre-snap penalty after another and lost 17-6. It was the first of five straight losses, leaving Spurrier frustrated and agitated. He questioned his players' effort and then backed off that and said it was their attitude he wasn't sure about.

Spurrier's hopeful that redshirt freshman Stephen Garcia will be the answer at quarterback next season. Garcia might have played this season had he not run into trouble off the field.

"We think we still have a bright future around here, but we have a lot of things we have to get better at if we're going to be challenging in the SEC," Spurrier said. "We're not that far off. We have to become a stronger team next year."

With Spurrier set to turn 63 (albeit a young 63) next spring, you can't help but wonder how much longer he will hang around if he sees that winning a championship at South Carolina just isn't going to happen. The Gamecocks will be better next season, but so will Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.

Here's something else to consider: The five-game stretch that led to South Carolina's undoing this season is the same next season … with one notable exception.

Cross out Vanderbilt and insert LSU.

Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Chris at espnclow@aol.com.