COLUMBIA — No. 12 South Carolina is a Missouri loss away from the Southeastern Conference title game, something only the most hopeful, rose-colored Gamecocks thought was possible a month ago.
South Carolina’s chase for a league championship seemed finished when the Gamecocks were upset 23-21 at Tennessee and trailed undefeated Missouri 17-0 entering the fourth quarter on a cold, damp night in Columbia, Mo.
But play-by-play and break-by-break, the Gamecocks (8-2, 6-2) have climbed back into an SEC East race that seemed over.
South Carolina got some help Saturday with No. 6 Auburn’s improbable, tipped-ball touchdown for a 43-38 win over Georgia, which had beaten the Gamecocks to start SEC play and held the tiebreaker against them.
The Gamecocks took care of their part a few hours later, wrapping up SEC play with a 19-14, come-from-behind win over Florida behind Elliott Fry’s four field goals and some staunch defense down the stretch.
“Somehow or another, it worked out again,” Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said.
Now, South Carolina must wait as leader No. 8 Missouri finishes league play the next two weeks, against a pair of SEC West opponents with Mississippi (7-3) on Nov. 23 and Texas A&M (8-2) and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel to close league play.
Gamecocks fans cheered and screamed as Williams-Brice Stadium’s 124-foot tall video board showed the final, frantic moments from Jordan-Hare Stadium. Then they waited and worried as South Carolina fell behind 14-6 before rallying to its 16th consecutive home victory – the longest in program history.
“I’m proud of our players, our players play like winners,” Spurrier said. “At halftime, there wasn’t a lot of laughter or much joy in the locker room. But afterwards, we had a happy bunch of Gamecocks.”
The Gamecocks sent Florida to its fifth consecutive loss.
South Carolina struggled to find room to move early on against Florida and its SEC-leading defense.
The Gamecocks allowed 169 yards rushing in the first half to a Gators team that came in next-to-last in SEC rushing. Kelvin Taylor had touchdown runs of 20 and 29 yards, the longest allowed by South Carolina this year, to build the lead.
Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said he talked to his players about playing up to their capabilities and they responded the final 30 minutes, limiting Florida to 31 yards on the ground.
“We try to make sure we stick together as a group,” Ward said. “Bad plays are going to happen. Florida is a good football team. They have great players and we feel like we have good football players, too.”
For Florida, a tough season continued trending downward. If the Gators don’t finish with wins over Georgia Southern and No. 2 Florida State, their 22-year bowl run will come to an end.
If you think it’ll be an agonizing two weeks of tracking Mizzou for South Carolina, think again.
Spurrier says his team will focus fully all week on FCS opponent Coastal Carolina, up next for the Gamecocks at Williams-Brice Stadium. After that comes one of the season’s biggest game against No. 7 Clemson, a contest that typically captures everyone’s attention.
How much time will Ward spend thinking about Missouri this week.
“None,” he said flatly.
Still, it’s tantalizing for the Gamecocks to consider how close they are to an SEC title shot after all but falling out of the race a month ago.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Mike Davis, the SEC’s leading rusher. “Hopefully, things will play out in our hands.”