Gamecocks walking into huge trap

South Carolina players, including Marcus Lattimore (center), celebrated with fans after beating No. 1 Alabama last week. The Gamecocks risk a letdown on the road vs. Kentucky on Saturday.

The word "trap" has many applications in football.

It can be a blocking scheme that suckers the defense in before pushing them out of the way. Or it can be that oh-so-close catching of the ball off the turf that typically leads to a replay reversal.

Or it can be walking into Kentucky's Commonwealth Stadium the week after beating the No. 1 team in the nation.

No. 10 South Carolina is stepping right into a big, fat, Southeastern Conference trap on Saturday night, marked with flashing lights, sirens, glowing neon "Caution" signs and that Lost In Space robot waving his arms and saying "Danger Will Brice!"

Head ball coach Steve Spurrier knows it.

"History tells us teams that have a big win don't do well the next time," said Spurrier, noting his team hasn't won away from home in six tries since the 2009 season opener.

South Carolina fans know the "trap" too well. Those who have suffered long enough can remember all the way back to 1984 when the Gamecocks climbed to No. 2 in the nation after beating Florida State only to get snared in a classic trap at Navy the following week to cost them an Orange Bowl trip and a national title shot. Even neophyte South Carolina followers can think back on 2007 when the 6-1 Gamecocks climbed to No. 6 in the polls and subsequently stumbled against Vanderbilt to trigger an 0-5 skid into oblivion.

So tried-and-true Gamecocks understand that Kentucky with three SEC losses is scarier than Alabama on a 19-game winning streak.

"I think I'm more nervous going to Kentucky," said Tom Young Sr., the former chairman of the Aiken County Gamecock Club and Class of '67. "We had nothing to lose against Alabama and we have everything to lose against Kentucky."

For the first time ever, the Gamecocks control their own destiny in the rigorous SEC East. Win out and nobody can keep them from competing in the SEC championship game in Atlanta. Lose to a dangerous team like Kentucky and you're right back in the middle of the struggle where tiebreakers and all kinds of unwelcome scenarios determine destiny.

Fortunately for the Gamecocks, Spurrier has been around the SEC East block a time or two and can smell a trap game when he sees it.

"This is one of the biggest games in school history for us to see if we can come back from last week and play well," Spurrier said.

He was preaching that within 15 minutes of last Saturday's historic 35-21 triumph over Alabama.

"We are not a great team that we can just show up and play," he said. "We have to put in a lot of effort and smarts, and if we do that then we are a pretty good team."

This is arguably the best team South Carolina has ever had. The Gamecocks might not have the depth of the traditional football factories such as Alabama or Florida, but they have enough top-caliber players and quality coaching to beat anyone.

They are impressive enough that Georgia coach Mark Richt offered Spurrier an unprecedented compliment after the Bulldogs lost at Williams-Brice in September.

"I guess it was the first time I shook hands with an opposing coach and he said, 'Steve, you have a heckuva team.' " Spurrier said. "I said we may have a heckuva team, we don't know yet."

The always loyal and occasionally delusional Gamecocks fans are starting to truly believe that 2010 is different from all the previous pretenders. The baseball team buried the so-called "Chicken Curse" by avoiding repeated pitfalls on the road to the first men's national title in school history. Now the football team is in position to reach uncharted heights in the SEC and BCS.

"This is a special team and every little piece is there to go to Atlanta," said Young, who is trying hard not to set his heart up for another big fall. "We've got some playmakers -- kids now who are game-changers like (Marcus) Lattimore and (Alshon) Jeffery. We've got better athletes now than we did in '84."

It's precisely that fact that has Gamecocks fans so nervous about the various traps that lie between here and Atlanta. Opportunity hasn't knocked often at South Carolina, as that lone 1969 Atlantic Coast Conference championship banner makes so clear. You can't let opportunities like this slip away in the hangover of one glorious victory.

"We do have a chance to win the East. We have a chance," Spurrier said. "We may not. We may fall on our face. I don't know what will happen. This is the year for opportunity because Florida has lost a couple. The opportunity is there if we can really go play well. The opportunity is there because we're not a lot better than those teams but we can play with those teams we're facing. Whether or not we can get ourselves ready and play well remains to be seen."

Transcendent teams avoid these traps. They go into Kentucky with the same kind of hunger that they applied against Alabama -- which clearly wasn't ready to handle its own trap at South Carolina coming off big wins over Arkansas and Florida.

"Our sport is a 12-game season," Spurrier said. "You have big moments and low moments and try to get your guys to get ready emotionally every week. The winners do that and the losers are up and down."

This week will tell more about the Gamecocks than last week did. If this South Carolina team is going to become a winner, it must proceed with extreme caution.

One trap can stop something special in its tracks.

Saturday's games

- Vanderbilt at Georgia, noon (CBS-Ch. 12)

- Maryland at Clemson, noon (Fox-Ch. 54)

- Middle Tennessee at Georgia Tech, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN3.com)

- Georgia Southern at Chattanooga, 6 p.m. (No TV)

- South Carolina at Kentucky, 6 p.m. (ESPN2)

 

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