COLUMBIA --- Steve Spurrier seemed to be a shell of himself his first few years at South Carolina, unable to rekindle the kind of success he had at Florida.
This year looked like it might be another tease when the Gamecocks again followed a big win against Alabama with a disappointing loss to Kentucky. Spurrier was shaken, but not down.
At 65, the South Carolina head ball coach is back in the Southeastern Conference title game.
His No. 18 Gamecocks take on second-ranked Auburn on Saturday.
After five largely so-so seasons, Spurrier can bring a winner to South Carolina in the game he loves the most. It's a second-act few thought Spurrier would pull off with the also-ran Gamecocks.
"The important thing is that our players really set some lofty goals this year," he said. "They set some goals that a lot of people maybe would've laughed at, at the beginning of the season."
Plenty of people laughed six years ago when Spurrier -- citing the Boston Red Sox slogan "Why not us?"-- said his goal was to win an SEC crown at South Carolina.
No one, not even Spurrier, critics said, could move South Carolina ahead of the East's power trio of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.
"I was a little surprised because I thought there were better options where he could be more immediately successful," said Chris Doering, a receiver on three SEC champions from 1993-95 for Spurrier at Florida.
But after several false starts, Spurrier's got the Gamecocks (9-3) set to ruin the league's chance at a fifth consecutive national title.
"Oh, we don't worry about that," Spurrier said. "We worry about South Carolina, our school, our state, our team. And we're trying to win our first conference championship."
Auburn coach Gene Chizik says it's an amazing achievement to coach two schools to the SEC's ultimate game. "It certainly says a great deal about him as a football coach," he said.
Doering says that success is what drives Spurrier, not other's opinions. "I don't think he cares about proving people wrong or any of that stuff," he said.
Indeed, Spurrier talks about the Gamecocks instead of himself. He's also not ready for a victory lap yet.
"We're in about as good a shape as we can expect to be," he said. "We're thrilled with the opportunity to go compete for the SEC Championship."