COLUMBIA -- He always was quick to douse the flames of hope as the wins mounted and his team's stock soared.
There always was something South Carolina coach Lou Holtz could find -- injuries, turnovers, the next week's opponent -- that would take a bit of the gloss off his team's improbable renaissance.
But the Gamecocks' display in Saturday's 27-7 win over Arkansas was enough to make the 63-year-old give the "Boo-Hoo Lou" routine a day off.
"We're not a great football team," Holtz said after the win that improved his team's record to 6-1, 4-1 in the SEC, "but I think we're a little bit better than I've given us credit for being."
After a brief and futile attempt at trying to downplay that his team became eligible for its first bowl appearance since the 1994 season, Holtz finally gave in.
"I've got to be honest," he said. "It means a lot."
On Sunday, not even the news that the Gamecocks have been hit hard by injuries was enough to dampen Holtz's outlook completely.
"When I looked at film, it was the most encouraged I have been as far as fundamentals and playing football physically, et cetera," said Holtz, whose team surged to a 27-0 third-quarter lead and dominated the Razorbacks in virtually every aspect.
The Gamecocks direct their magic carpet ride to Vanderbilt on Saturday armed with a No. 18 ranking in the Associated Press poll, their highest spot since 1988.
Bowl eligibility isn't at stake this week, but the Gamecocks have plenty to play for. There's the SEC East, which South Carolina is atop with Florida (6-1, 4-1). If the Gamecocks win at Vanderbilt this week and at home against Tennessee a week later, chances are their Nov. 11 date with the Gators in Gainesville, Fla., will be among the biggest games in the program's history; a trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game could hang in the balance.
"We're not in the driver's seat," Holtz said of the conference race, "but as I told the team, at least we're in the car."
The Gamecocks never have finished with a winning conference record in the past eight years of SEC play -- their best marks were 4-4 in 1994 and 1996 -- and a victory Saturday in Nashville (2 p.m., pay-per-view) will guarantee them that.
Entering the season, Holtz's primary task was convincing his players they could win despite the 21-game losing streak that enveloped the program.
Now, with the Gamecocks having been transformed from underdogs to favorites, his job is to convince them they're equally capable of losing.
"One of the problems we have to adjust to is playing with pressure and the expectations of performing well," Holtz said. "That's a stage you go through.
"With all football teams, you learn to be competitive, then you learn how to win, then you learn how to handle winning. Handling winning is the stage we're trying to get to right now."
A look at the No. 18 South Carolina Gamecocks (6-1, 4-1 SEC) two days after their 27-7 win over Arkansas:
What worked: The Gamecocks played their most complete game of the season. They were explosive and balanced on offense, rushing for 174 yards and passing for 170, and the defense was dominant.
What didn't: The injury-bug repellent. The Gamecocks were bitten hard, as several offensive linemen went down with injuries. FS Antione Nesmith had surgery to repair torn cartilage in his knee and could be out for the rest of the regular season.
What's next: South Carolina plays at Vanderbilt on Saturday at 2 p.m. The game is available on pay-per-view in South Carolina.
Injuries: Nesmith (knee) is out. G C.J. Frye (ankle), G Cedric Williams (ankle), NT Cleveland Pinkney (ankle) and G Philip Jones (toes) are doubtful. LB Kenneth Harney (fibula) and OT Travelle Wharton (back) are questionable.
Analysis: The offense looked its sharpest yet against Arkansas. QB Phil Petty has found a reliable and potent nucleus in receivers Brian Scott, Jermale Kelly, James Adkisson and Carlos Spikes, making opponents pay for ganging up on RB Derek Watson.
Quote: "We could possibly be without five players, and that's just a tremendous blow to us." -- Coach Lou Holtz, on the injuries.
A look at the No. 12 Georgia Bulldogs (5-1, 3-1 SEC) two days after their 29-19 win over Vanderbilt.
What worked: Despite the Bulldogs' continued offensive struggles, SE Terrence Edwards had five catches for 135 yards, including a 67-yard scoring reception in the third quarter.
What didn't: The vaunted Bulldogs defense surrendered 442 yards, and the offense managed just 92 rushing yards and 307 total yards.
What's next: Georgia plays at Kentucky on Saturday (12:30 p.m., CBS)
Injuries: QB Quincy Carter suffered what coach Jim Donnan termed a "badly bruised" rotator cuff in his left shoulder and likely won't be able to play this week. RB Musa Smith (knee) was to undergo an MRI on Sunday night to determine the extent of his injury. Edwards (bruised knee), RB Jasper Sanks (shoulder) and RB DeJuan Green (ankle) are questionable.
Analysis: Those dissatisfied with Carter's play probably will get to see what life is like without the junior quarterback. Donnan said he plans for sophomore Cory Phillips to be the starter at Kentucky, while freshman David Greene should back him up. Donnan said receiver LaBrone Mitchell will be the team's "emergency backup."
Quote: "Believe me, it could happen." -- Donnan, on the chances of Vanderbilt pulling off an upset of South Carolina on Saturday.
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645.
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