COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina's path had gone far too smoothly the past two years for coach Lou Holtz to face problems so early in the season.
The Gamecocks, who set school records with 17 victories and back-to-back Outback Bowl victories in 2000 and 2001, were 1-2 last month after losses to Virginia and Georgia. One more defeat and months of work might be lost.
"You don't know what the future holds," Holtz said Monday. "You're sitting there 1-2 and everybody's waiting for a bomb to fall out."
Instead of a bomb, Holtz and the Gamecocks (5-2, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) found fire.
They've won their past four games after a gutsy 16-12 win at Kentucky and are back in position for their third-straight bowl appearance, which would be a first for South Carolina.
"I feel like confidence comes and goes," senior receiver-tailback Ryan Brewer says. "But we've got it. We're confident and we're feeling pretty good."
And they'll need every bit of it as they head to No. 14 LSU (5-1).
Holtz thinks the season turned around in the 13-7 loss to Georgia.
Even as the Gamecocks were fumbling away goal-line touchdowns, the coaches saw the team's character grow. "I just believed in us," Holtz said. "We focused on the positive things after Georgia."
Cornerback Dunta Robinson credits a team meeting after a lackluster win against Temple on Sept. 21 with refocusing the players. "We told each other that we're all better than what we were doing," Robinson said.
The Gamecocks' play has proved that ever since.
South Carolina's defense yielded 419 yards in the season opener to New Mexico State, but has allowed an average of 292 yards in the past five games.
Quarterback Corey Jenkins, abysmal in committing four of South Carolina's seven turnovers at Virginia, has become the team's unquestioned leader.
Young and untested players like defensive lineman Moe Thompson and receiver Troy Williamson have blossomed into Gamecock stars.
You need evidence? South Carolina trailed 10-0 at halftime last week, but it may have been 100-0 with how poorly the Gamecocks moved the ball. But Jenkins threw for 163 of his 199 yards after the break. Williamson had three catches for 101 yards and Brewer scored the winning touchdown with 7:54 to go.
South Carolina's defense chipped in, as well. Kentucky had 1st-and-goal at the 7, but could not score.
"There were doubts early on," Robinson said. "But now we all believe in each other."
Not that everything is perfect with South Carolina.
Holtz has grown frustrated with Jenkins' daredevil style at times. As he raced for the goal line in the fourth quarter against Kentucky trailing 10-3, Jenkins was hit and flipped the football into the end zone. Gamecocks right tackle Watts Sanderson may have saved Jenkins job for the moment, coming away with the tying touchdown.
Holtz says he's given the 26-year-old Jenkins more slack than usual this season. "But the rope's over," Holtz said. "Now you make a noose."
Holtz isn't totally blaming Jenkins who the coach thinks with his 6-foot-2, 220-pound build would be a tremendous strong safety. "But I don't know any way you can go with a quarterback that puts the ball on the ground and puts it in jeopardy," the coach said.
Holtz says he'll start whichever quarterback - Dondrial Pinkins is South Carolina's backup - protects the ball best at practice this week.
Brewer has heard words like this from Holtz ever since he joined South Carolina in 1999. Brewer expects Jenkins in the backfield this weekend.
"That's what I believe," Brewer said. Holtz "does it to everybody. He does it to me, he does it to Andrew (Pinnock), he does it to all the seniors. It makes you better. It's going to make Corey better."
If it does, the Gamecocks' surge could continue.