COLUMBIA -- One team was tabbed a contender in the Southeastern Conference, an up-and-comer that would shed its traditional role as straw man to be pummeled.
The other was handcuffed to the conference cellar, deemed fit to be competitive but hardly capable of challenging for anything.
Vanderbilt and South Carolina have pulled off the unexpected this season, proving the prognosticators aren't worth the paper their summer predictions were printed on.
The Commodores, not the Gamecocks, are on the rocks, and No. 18 South Carolina (6-1, 4-1 SEC), which travels to Nashville on Saturday for a 2 p.m. game, is in the midst of one of the more remarkable turnarounds in college football history.
"This is something we've always known that we could do," said Gamecocks defensive end Kalimba Edwards, whose team is in control of the race in the SEC's Eastern Division. "I guess you can kind of say we had the world against us, but it really doesn't matter. If you know what you can do, all you have to do is go out and do it. It's just chance meeting preparation."
Fresh off last week's emotional victory over Arkansas that made them bowl eligible, the Gamecocks find themselves in an odd position -- wondering whether they'll overlook a team they haven't beaten since 1997.
In 1998, the Commodores snapped a 22-game SEC losing streak by beating the Gamecocks in Nashville, 17-14. Then last season, they came to Columbia and left with an 11-10 win in what was regarded as South Carolina's last and most realistic chance at a victory during a winless season.
At the time, the game's result was considered symbolic of two teams headed in opposite directions. The Gamecocks showed few signs of making a dramatic resurgence in 2000, and the Commodores, who returned most their players from a promising 5-6 unit, appeared poised to climb to the next rung of SEC respectability.
Oh, how the mediocre have fallen. The Commodores (2-4, 0-3) dropped their first three games of the season, and their only wins have come against two dregs of the ACC, Duke and Wake Forest.
South Carolina coach Lou Holtz says the Commodores are "on a roll," and perhaps he's correct -- only if he means they're headed straight downhill.
"We've missed probably more assignments this year than we have since I've been here, and I really don't know why," said fourth-year coach Woody Widenhofer, whose team is last in the SEC in scoring offense with 15.6 points per game.
To reach their goal of a winning season, the Commodores must sweep their remaining games against the Gamecocks, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee.
So a losing mark is virtually assured, but that's been the theme in recent Commodore lore; Vandy's last winning season came in 1982, when many of its current players were in diapers.
Most encouraging to the Commodores is that a few of their performances have belied their ugly record. They had Alabama on the ropes Sept. 9 before falling 28-10, and they were in it again the next week against Ole Miss until the Rebels held on for a 12-7 win.
And last week, they played competitively throughout against No. 12 Georgia but were undone by four turnovers and special teams breakdowns.
"If we don't turn it over in those two ball games, we could easily be 4-3 right now," Widenhofer said of the losses to Alabama and Georgia.
The Gamecocks represent the flip side of the "What If?" coin, having relied on good fortune in taut struggles to beat Mississippi State and Kentucky.
If Holtz is to be believed, they'll be in for another close one this week.
"All I want to do is explain to our football team how difficult this sucker is going to be on Saturday," said Holtz, several of whose players are hobbled or hampered by injuries. "We're going to fight for our lives, and we better be prepared mentally and physically going into that environment."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645.
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