COLUMBIA - South Carolina's football team has made quite a living as an underdog the past two seasons.
The Gamecocks pulled off several upsets in 2000, and last Thursday's 16-14 triumph at Mississippi State might have been their most impressive conquest yet.
Some said South Carolina would be in for a reality check this season, but the only reality so far is that the No. 15 Gamecocks are for real. Now, they'll have to adjust to their new role as favorite - even if their coach doesn't yet consider them one.
"I don't think we're a favorite; I really don't," said third-year coach Lou Holtz, whose team will play host to Alabama on Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium (12:30 p.m., CBS-Ch. 12).
The oddsmakers would disagree. They installed the Gamecocks (3-0, 2-0) as a seven-point favorite for Saturday's game, which figures to be a raucous homecoming for a team fresh off big road wins over Mississippi State and Georgia.
In Columbia, the most ardent pessimist would find it difficult to put a negative spin on the Gamecocks' recent success. Holtz, as much as he tried to downplay matters by saying his team isn't one of the 20 best in the nation, admitted that he has "always underrated our football team, I'm sure, because I look at all the things critically and the areas we have to improve."
There's plenty of room for improvement against the Crimson Tide (2-1, 2-0 SEC), which owns a 10-0 record against South Carolina in a series that stretches to 1937.
Alabama's average margin of victory over the Gamecocks is 23 points, and last year's 27-17 win by the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa was the second-closest in the series' history.
Holtz is still miffed at the defeat that spoiled his team's 4-0 start. The Gamecocks served up their worst performance of the season by tossing three interceptions and missing two field goals from inside 30 yards.
Cornerback Andre Goodman, whose defense surrendered 350 yards to the Tide last season, said the Gamecocks let a precious opportunity slip through their hands.
"As a team, we felt like we let it get away last year," said Goodman, who was named the SEC's defensive player of the week after recording an interception, four tackles and four pass deflections against Mississippi State.
Junior fullback Andrew Pinnock said his team was unsure of itself during the breakthrough season. This year, he said, things are different. The Gamecocks don't play or feel like underdogs anymore.
"We believe we can play with anybody," he said. "We're not going to underestimate anybody, but we just believe. We don't let the pressure get to us."
The Gamecocks' ranking of No. 15 is their highest in 13 years. ... Because of safety precautions enforced after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, fans should enter the stadium 15 to 30 minutes earlier than normal, the school said. Coolers, backpacks and shoulder bags will not be allowed. Binoculars and cameras are not to be carried in cases. There will be a sweep of the stadium Friday night by a bomb detection squad. ... Holtz said senior linebacker Kenny Harney, a former Allendale-Fairfax standout who missed last week's game with a sprained ankle, will play Saturday. Defensive end Dennis Quinn, who played at Washington-Wilkes and is hampered by a knee sprain, is probable. ... South Carolina and Alabama are the SEC's only teams with 2-0 conference records. ... Gamecocks quarterback Phil Petty has thrown 68 straight passes this season without an interception. ... Alabama guard Justin Smiley, a redshirt freshman who originally committed to South Carolina before changing his mind, is a starter for the Crimson Tide. The 6-foot-3, 295-pounder from Ellabell, Ga., had 10 knockdown blocks in last week's 31-10 win over Arkansas. ... Barnwell's Tyeler Dean, the Gamecocks' punter, is fourth in the SEC and 25th nationally with 43 yards per punt. ... Place-kicker Daniel Weaver is a perfect 5-for-5 on field goals this season. Arkansas is the only other SEC team with a perfect mark (2-for-2). ... The Gamecocks have committed 84 yards worth of penalties, the fewest in the SEC by 42 yards. ... Alabama has amassed an SEC-high nine sacks. Seven of them came against the Razorbacks. ... The Gamecocks have outscored their opponents by a combined score of 27-10 in the first quarter.
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.