As we've seen before in this series, it's sometimes hard to tell when programs are passing each other going in opposite directions. Sometimes, the near-historic high is just a prelude to a fall, and a heartbreaking defeat is just the beginning of a program's rise.
When South Carolina and Ohio State took the field in the 2002 Outback Bowl, it looked like the Gamecocks were the team of the future. Already, Lou Holtz had turned around perpetually mediocre South Carolina; the Gamecocks had gone 16-7 to that point over the 2000 and 2001 seasons and won the largest bowl game in school history, the 2001 Outback Bowl -- also against Ohio State, a 24-7 blowout that had ended any slim hopes John Cooper had of keeping his job.
Across the field was Ohio State and new coach Jim Tressel, who had come from turning Division I-AA Youngstown State into a perennial national title contender to lead the Buckeyes ... back to the Outback Bowl. Two straight years of 11 a.m. ET football was a big deal for South Carolina. Not so for Ohio State.
In this case, your humble correspondent was at the game in question. South Carolina fans were as obnoxious as ever, chanting "Game ... COCKS!" as we walked into Raymond James Stadium. The first 40 minutes went as well as we could expect, as the Garnet and Black built a 28-0 lead.
As I went for food around or after halftime, I overheard a conversation between a South Carolina and an Ohio State fan. "Well, we're probably about the only team that's ever won all our games against you," the Gamecock fan remarked. The Buckeye fan did not disagree with the idea that his team was about to lose yet another bowl game against the SEC.
Then, Steve Bellisari took over. Bellisari, who had been taking abuse for his drink driving charges from fans that absolutely surely did not include C&F, began to sour the day with a late third-quarter drive that ended with a 2-yard TD run. Then, Bellisari hit Darnell Sanders for another score. Jonathan Wells ran in a 1-yard TD. Bellisari to Sanders again -- tie game.
Now it was the Gamecocks who were certain of their doom. This had been the story over and over in Holtz's time in Columbia: Get a lead in a historically important game, cough it up late and ultimately lose. South Carolina fans had seen this story all too often.
When Derek Ross intercepted Phil Petty late in the fourth, it just seemed to confirm the fear. Either in the final seconds of regulation or in overtime, the Gamecocks would find a way to give the game away.
Then, without explanation, the Gamecocks got one of those lucky breaks they never get. With about 30 seconds left on the clock, in their own territory in a tie game, Ohio State decided to pass. Sheldon Brown picked off the ball, and somewhere from beyond the grave, Woody Hayes unleashed a string of unprintable words.
The Gamecocks now had the ball at the Ohio State 29. Three plays to get the ball ready, and out came kicker Daniel Weaver. He prepared to attempt the game-winner --
And Ohio State called timeout.
So Weaver waited, prepared once more to kick the ball --
And Ohio State called timeout.
Whether this was bothering Weaver was yet to be seen. But it was certainly bothering South Carolina fans.
Finally, it was time for Weaver to kick.
There is that moment, when you're watching a game live, when the overwhelming majority of fans don't know whether a kick is good or not. Those sitting behind the correct end zone can tell -- but that's about it. In the opposite end zone, I thought (and hoped) that the ball had cleared the cross bar, but I wasn't sure.
The referees' hands shot into the air, and the garnet parts of the stadium went crazy. South Carolin won, 31-28. For the first time in program history, the Gamecocks had won two straight bowl games. This 17-7 record was surely the beginning of a different era in South Carolina football history.
Among those wearning scarlet, it was a different feeling. Their new coach had done what their old coach was so good at doing: Losing bowl games. Where was the Buckeye tradition.
That day seems long ago now. Ohio State would go on to win the 2002 national title little more than a year later and would play for two more. The Buckeyes became a virtual Big Ten dynasty.
South Carolina would go 16-19 over the rest of Holtz's stay in Columbia before an embarrassing fight with Clemson in the final game before Holtz's already planned retirement caused the school to decline any bowl invitation.
Steve Spurrier would finally return the Gamecocks to a New Year's Day bowl when South Carolina faced Iowa this past Jan. 1. The Gamecocks lost, 31-10.