COLUMBIA -- South Carolina, bowl eligible in 2000? Only on a cold day in hell, you might have said just a few months ago.
But there might be cause to make a long-distance call down there to see if the terrain is freezing over.
"It's almost a miracle," said Lou Holtz, South Carolina's second-year coach.
The Gamecocks continued their improbable ascent Saturday before 81,935 fans at Williams-Brice Stadium, earning a 27-7 victory over Arkansas to give them the necessary six wins for a bowl invitation.
"We definitely accomplished our first goal, and that was to become eligible," said senior nose tackle Cleveland Pinkney, whose team is 6-1 for the first time since 1988. "Now we're bowl eligible, and we'll concentrate on getting to Atlanta for the SEC Championship."
South Carolina wasn't even eligible for respectability during a 21-game losing streak from 1998 to 1999 that cast a depressing pall over the program.
But here the Gamecocks are, virtually assured of their first bowl appearance since 1995 and tied with Florida atop the SEC's Eastern Division.
"It's a very high feeling, just a pleasing time," said quarterback Phil Petty, who threw for 170 yards and two touchdowns on 12-of-21 passing. "It's exciting to know that you're going to a bowl, because no one on this team has ever been. All the guys that have been here for so long, they've never been to a bowl."
After a scoreless first quarter, the Gamecocks (6-1, 4-1 SEC) put up 13 points before intermission, then added 14 in the third quarter to surge ahead 27-0 and help improve their conference record to 4-1, their best start in nine years of play in the SEC.
Sophomore running back Derek Watson rushed for 136 yards on 17 carries, including a 68-yard gallop late in the third quarter that put the Razorbacks into the 27-0 hole.
"We played our best game of the year," Holtz said. "We played as a complete team. We played intelligently. We played field-position football."
Holtz said last week he was worried about his defense, but the Gamecocks set aside those concerns by holding Arkansas to 251 total yards to help snap a two-game losing streak to the Razorbacks (4-2, 1-2).
The Gamecocks put plenty of pressure on Razorbacks quarterbacks, enough that three left the game with various injuries.
Starter Robby Hampton left in the first half with a sprained right thumb and returned late with matters no longer in doubt. While he was out, freshman Zak Clark and junior Jared McBride saw duty and were harassed just as frequently.
Down 20-0 late in the third quarter, Arkansas showed signs of making things interesting by driving to the Gamecocks' 5-yard line.
But on first-and-goal, Pinkney belted Fred Talley on a run up the middle, forcing a fumble that defensive back Andre Goodman recovered to give the Gamecocks possession at the 10.
One play later, Watson took a sweep left and executed a deft cutback, breaking two tackles and finding daylight down the right sideline for a 68-yard touchdown run, his longest career rush and his ninth touchdown of the season.
Watson drew an assist on the run from Petty, who raced downfield and took Razorbacks defensive back Ken Hamlin out of the play.
"Coach Holtz was telling me last year things are going to get better," Watson said. "It can't get worse coming off 0-and-21. The only thing you can do is get better."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645.
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