For the third consecutive week, the South Carolina Gamecocks are at the center of the college football universe.
“Three in a row for us right now,” coach Steve Spurrier said of the unprecedented string of top-10 showdowns that will determine the fate of the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division. “And hopefully four in a row of sellout crowds, loud stadiums, full as it can be.”
First the No. 6 Gamecocks crushed No. 5 Georgia.
Then the No. 3 Gamecocks came up two points short at No. 9 Louisiana State University.
Now the No. 9 Gamecocks face a must win at No. 3 Florida.
“We know the importance of it,” Spurrier said.
Frankly, Saturday is the most critical game of the season in the Swamp.
It’s the most critical game of the season in Columbia.
It’s even the most critical game of the season in Athens, Ga., because the Bulldogs know that a South Carolina victory will extinguish any lingering hopes of Georgia back-dooring into the SEC Championship game again.
All South Carolina needs to do is flush the disappointment of last week’s loss and do what it’s done each of the past two seasons – beat the Gators.
“It’s a big game. We know it’s a big game,” receiver Bruce Ellington said. “We’ve got to go in with the mentality that we can beat these guys and go all out. We’ve got to win this game to stay in the East.”
As tough as Saturday night’s loss in a hostile Death Valley was, it didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Nothing was irredeemably lost with a 23-21 defeat to the reigning SEC champs who competed for the BCS title last year. Sure, it exposed a few weaknesses that need addressing, but the only thing forfeited was any margin for further error.
“We made that known right after the game was over,” senior linebacker Shaq Wilson said. “Our goals are still there and the things we want to accomplish at Carolina are still on the table. Basically we’ve got to go out here and put it all on the line every week and know we’ve got something great we can accomplish.”
Truthfully, this is South Carolina’s last big test – and one that it has already proven capable of passing. Two years ago the Gamecocks went to Gainesville, Fla., and spanked the host Gators to win the SEC East for the first time in school history.
“It’s a good advantage to know we’ve got guys who’ve done it before on the team,” Wilson said.
But that was a down Florida program, not the one that has rebuilt itself under Will Muschamp into a power running team and climbed to No. 2 behind Alabama in the first release of the BCS poll.
Still, the Gators have a lot to prove themselves. Many of these Florida players have never beaten the Gamecocks or former Gator legend Spurrier. And as good as Florida has been so far in getting to 6-0, it hasn’t been dominant – falling behind in five of its six games and needing second-half rallies to beat Texas A&M, Tennessee and LSU.
“They’re playing what you call winning football,” said Spurrier in a back-handed compliment similar to what he said three weeks ago about Georgia.
You can’t assume anything in the SEC, but it doesn’t take that vivid an imagination to envision South Carolina, Florida and Georgia beating all of the other conference foes (combined SEC record 3-19) left on their schedules. It’s likely going to come down to the Gators’ games this week and next – and next week’s cocktail party might not matter at all.
If South Carolina wins Saturday, a date in Atlanta is its to choke away.
“If we go on a three-game winning streak, we’re going to win it,” Spurrier said of the East. “We’ve got the other two guys at home (Tennessee and Arkansas) and we’ve been pretty good at home. It’s a key game for us.”
If Florida wins Saturday, the winner of next week’s neutral battle in Jacksonville, Fla., is the likely SEC East representative at the Georgia Dome.
“We’re not going to fold it up if it doesn’t work out,” Spurrier said. “We’re looking forward to seeing if we can beat these guys. It’s a long season. We’ve got other goals besides winning the Eastern Division, so if we’re out of it, we’ll go to the next goal and go from there.”
He’s right, of course, but South Carolina has moved past the days of achieving secondary goals such as double-digit victory totals, bowl triumphs and beating in-state rivals. Championships are the things that matter most, and this Gamecocks team is championship worthy.
Playing three consecutive games as high profile as these illustrates that.
“The bigger the games, the littler you make it,” Wilson said about focusing on the details that spell the difference between playing for a championship and finishing out the string.
Spurrier knows the stakes in his old backyard, and how this season will be defined by what happens Saturday afternoon.
“We’ll see if we can’t make something special happen,” he said.