COLUMBIA -- South Carolina's coaches and players are reluctant to build up Saturday's tilt against visiting Mississippi State.
But there's no denying it's a huge game for the Gamecocks, who hope it will provide an accurate indicator of how far the program has come in a short time under second-year coach Lou Holtz.
"It's the biggest one I've played in since I've been here," said junior center Philip Jones, whose team pinned a 41-6 loss on Eastern Michigan last week to improve to 3-0 for the first time since 1990.
If South Carolina happens to lose to the No. 25 Bulldogs, the Gamecocks still would have a realistic shot of a winning season and a bowl game.
But a victory would announce the Gamecocks' arrival as a major player in the Southeastern Conference -- a concept even the most ardent Pollyannas had difficulty envisioning just weeks ago.
"By beating Georgia and having pretty convincing wins against the other two teams, we realize that we've got some talent here," said Jones, whose team has beaten New Mexico State, Georgia and Eastern Michigan by a combined score of 93-16. "We've got the togetherness, we're executing the way we should now, and a lot of things are coming together at the right time for us."
It has been a while since South Carolina even was remotely considered a factor in the upper echelon of the SEC, and Holtz guarded against reading too much into his team's surprising start.
But it would be difficult to overstate what a victory Saturday would mean to a program that was a catch phrase for failure the past two years.
The Gamecocks would be 4-0 for the first time since 1988, and, presumably, they would move into the Top 25 for the first time since 1993. Weeks removed from snapping the longest losing streak in college football, they would apply for a more pleasant distinction: biggest surprise in college football.
"I don't have any question about us working hard and playing hard and wanting to win," Holtz said. "This is an easy week to coach, as far as the intangibles are concerned. The only question is, Are we good enough?"
Statistically speaking, the Gamecocks have made immense offensive progress since they mustered fewer than eight points per game in 1999.
Their 93 points scored are six more than they put up all of last season, and their 224 rushing yards per game rank first in the SEC and 16th nationally.
Quarterback Phil Petty often has looked sharp, having completed 61.8 percent of his passes. The junior threw for 240 yards on 19 of 30 attempts last week as the Gamecocks rolled up 576 total yards.
But despite the gaudy numbers, this still appears an offense that is trying to find itself. Petty has missed open receivers in each of the Gamecocks' three games, and a consistent deep-passing threat has yet to emerge.
South Carolina had a few hiccups last week by losing two fumbles, one of which resulted in a field goal. The Gamecocks will forfeit their margin for error against a Mississippi State team that is 2-0 and looking for its fifth straight win over South Carolina.
The Bulldogs traveled to Brigham Young last Thursday and slashed the Cougars to ribbons, amassing a 31-7 halftime lead before leaving town with a 44-28 win.
"After the game, we looked back on it and we realized that we scored 41 points and we really didn't play all that well," Jones said. "With the turnovers and the bad snaps, we haven't played the way we're capable of playing. We can't make those same mistakes against Mississippi State."
Against the Bulldogs, just kicking a field goal would represent progress; Mississippi State has outscored the Gamecocks by a combined 55-0 the past two seasons.
"Last year, we went down there and played pretty well on defense," said Holtz, whose team fell 17-0 in Starkville in 1999. "But we were so bad last year that they weren't real inspired and still shut us out."
Jones said last season's loss is just one reminder that the Gamecocks' fortunes can plummet as quickly as they've risen.
"We can't let down at all," he said. "We have to refocus and realize that three weeks ago we were 0-and-21. We've got to realize that we're that close to being back where we were if we don't focus, if we don't remember what got us here."
ESPN's traveling "College Gameday" show passed up a trip to Columbia on Saturday in favor of the UCLA-Oregon game. Kerry Tharp, assistant athletic director at South Carolina, said Columbia was on the network's list of possible sites. ... Saturday's game, which will be televised by CBS, is a sellout, as are the Gamecocks' remaining two home dates against Arkansas (Oct. 14, 1 p.m.) and Tennessee (Oct. 28, 1 p.m.). ... Holtz said the team likely will stick with garnet jerseys, which they've worn the past two games, after wearing black in the opener.
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645.
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