COLUMBIA — One of the favorite staples of journalism is the “last time” feature.
You know, the last time so-and-so did such-and-such, Grover Cleveland was in the White House and a gallon of milk cost a Confederate penny or whatever.
Well, the last time South Carolina’s Gamecocks beat Georgia in football three consecutive times there was infinite blackness. You can go all the way back 13.7 billion years in the media guide and not find an instance of it happening anywhere.
Then came Saturday night at Williams-Brice Stadium. In the biggest gridiron showdown ever waged on Columbia turf, the Gamecocks dropped a big bang on the Bulldogs. And suddenly everything we thought we understood about college football in this corner of the universe became obsolete.
“It was probably the loudest (stadium) in the country today,” head coach Steve Spurrier said of the eruptions from the record 85,199 that witnessed a historic turning point.
South Carolina has officially succeeded Georgia as the established power in this Southeastern Conference East border war. No more dismissing wins as aberrations (Georgia was weak in 2010 or the Bulldogs gave it away with stupid mistakes in 2011).
There is no way to draw any other conclusion from Saturday night’s 35-7 beatdown than that these Gamecocks are just better. Georgia came in with a No. 5 ranking, an offense averaging nearly 50 points a game, a defense with all the pieces back together – and South Carolina made them look like Ole Miss on a bad day.
“I knew it was going to be a special one if we win,” Spurrier said of his team’s record 10th consecutive victory. “This was my 250th win as a coach and having it against the Georgia Bulldogs was special, too. ... Good to get all those historical wins. Those are fun.”
The Gamecocks simply dominated from the start. They took the opening kickoff and drove with conventional ease. It wasn’t Marcus Lattimore doing the damage or Connor Shaw turning busted plays into big gains. It was standard drop-back passing and wide open receivers.
The second drive after an interception took a little longer but was no less easy. Eleven more plays, 69 yards and it was 14-0.
Then came Ace Sanders’ bob-and-weave 70-yard punt return touchdown and, less than 10 minutes into the “border bash of the century,” it was all but over. The stat sheet had the Gamecocks leading 247-39 in overall yardage for the first quarter, but the 21-0 on the scoreboard was starkly decisive.
Georgia was just trying to find a pulse and had no defibrillator. Desperately needing something – anything – before halftime to light a spark, the Bulldogs finally mounted a substantive drive. In 15 plays they moved 80 yards to the Gamecocks’ 1, where the drive ended on fourth down when Rantavious Wooten ran a pattern that didn’t bother crossing the goal-line when that was all that mattered.
“That was a good goal-line stand,” Spurrier said. “That was a key stop.”
By the time the fourth quarter came around and the Gamecocks were driving to push the lead to 35-0, fans were chanting “Over-rated!” to the soon-to-be formerly No. 5 Bulldogs. Ouch.
But this isn’t about Georgia and what it isn’t. This is about South Carolina and what it is – under-rated. The only thing that wasn’t working for the Gamecocks on Saturday was the state-of-the-art, $6.5 million video board that went black for most of the second half.
They had their way offensively and defensively with a team that was being sized up nationally as a BCS contender. And this was no fluke.
“We came into this game expecting to win,” said Lattimore, who has never lost to Georgia in three tries.
Saturday night wasn’t a game changer – it’s a mind-changer. The last thing to move in a culture shift is outside perception. South Carolina’s established rep was as a chronic underachiever for more than a century. There would be the occasional moments of relative glory, but nothing that changed people’s minds in Arizona or Alabama.
This was different – even beyond the paradigm-shifting victory over No. 1 Alabama two years ago that sprung a first SEC East title.
“We definitely sent the message out to the whole country that this is not the old South Carolina,” Lattimore said. “We can play with y’all. We can play with anybody.”
Establishing a legitimate top-tier football program doesn’t happen overnight, but in eight seasons Spurrier has indeed made the Gamecocks an annual force to be reckoned with. He’s flipped the tables in the Palmetto State on hated rival Clemson with three unambiguous wins in a row.
Now he’s officially flipped the border war with the Bulldogs. Anyone from Athens among the record crowd in Williams-Brice walked away knowing that nothing in this series will ever be the same.
“Our fans have paid their dues and needed something in return,” said Spurrier “They are getting something in return now.”
Spurrier owns Georgia now the same way he owned them from the Southern flank at Florida. And he has reestablished a new stronghold in the SEC East and has his sights set on challenging the West.
He has the better big-game team. He has the better shut-down defense. He has the better path to Atlanta and the better shot at contending for a BCS title shot.
This is a new day in the SEC East, and the Gamecocks are the program with the expanding promise while the Bulldogs are reduced to hoping for back-door entree to its goals.
Nothing that comes next is guaranteed.
But one thing is for certain after Saturday’s three-peat over Georgia – it won’t be the last time.