Many wondered if South Carolina had the mental fortitude to not overlook its regular-season-ending game against rival Clemson, considering that a second matchup against undefeated Auburn in the SEC Championship Game was on the horizon.
The Gamecocks proved this is not your father's South Carolina squad.
Since an embarrassing home loss to Arkansas, it has been focused every week, making Clemson its third consecutive victim and claiming a workmanlike 29-7 road win.
In its last three games, the Gamecocks have outscored Florida, Troy and Clemson 134-45, which should give the team confidence as it attempts to become the first squad to derail high-flying Auburn.
The Tigers claimed a 35-27 home victory in the first encounter, but had to battle back from a 20-7 deficit to do so. The Gamecocks hurt themselves, guilty of four fourth-quarter turnovers. After fumbling twice, quarterback Stephen Garcia was benched in favor of freshman Connor Shaw in the contest.
Shaw did do any better, however, as he was intercepted twice in the final period.
The Gamecocks have come a long way since then, however, proving to be up to the immediate challenge in front of them.
"I think we're ready," said coach Steve Spurrier.
"These guys have proven they like competing on the big stage. They did it on the road against Florida (to claim the SEC Eastern Division title) and on the road against Clemson. Now they get to perform on the biggest stage, in Atlanta, for the SEC Championship."
One of the reasons for optimism is the improved play of South Carolina's defense. Clemson managed only 251 total yards, its second lowest output of the season. Clemson's seven points marked its lowest total of the season.
During its three-game winning streak, South Carolina has allowed an average of 246.7 total yards.
"We really didn't have a great week of preparation from the standpoint of the kids being in tune," said Ellis Johnson, the assistant head coach for defense.
"Maybe that's the way we started the way we did. But one thing they've shown all year, even when we hit bad periods or good periods or whatever, they have a mental toughness and an edge about them that I am very proud of."
--South Carolina moved up to 16th in the USA Today coaches poll, while remaining at 18th in the Associated Press poll. The team has been in the Top 25 every week this season, with the exception of the first.
--The Gamecocks won the turnover battle for the third consecutive game, forcing three Clemson miscues while committing none. They are plus six in turnover margin on the season, and are 5-0 when winning that battle. During Steve Spurrier's tenure at the school, South Carolina is 19-4 when winning the turnover battle.
--Alshon Jeffery became the eighth USC receiver to top 2,000 career receiving yards. He has 2,114 yards, placing the sophomore in seventh place on the school's all-time list. He has had 100 or more receiving yards in seven games this season and has 10 games of 100 or more receiving yards in his career. He is one 100-yard performance away from tying Sidney Rice for the most in Gamecocks history.
SERIES HISTORY: Auburn leads South Carolina 6-1-1 (last meeting, 2010, 35-27 Auburn).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The Gamecocks are on a roll, scoring 134 points in their last three games against Florida, Troy and Clemson. The record setting duo of RB Marcus Lattimore and WR Alshon Jeffery continue to be hard to stop. While Clemson did a solid job keeping Lattimore in check with 48 rushing yards on 23 carries, Jeffery had five catches for 141 yards and one score. QB Stephen Garcia completed only 14 of 30 passes for 227 yards but threw for two touchdowns and did not have a turnover.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: After struggling to defend the pass through much of the season, the defense appears to have found its stride. It held Florida, Troy and Clemson to an average of 246 total yards in the past three games. The defense has returned six turnovers for touchdowns this season, including three in the past two games.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Next week is one of the biggest games that our team has ever played. We're looking forward to it. We have a bunch of guys that like going on big stages. It was a big stage here tonight and it was a big stage down in Florida. But the really big stage is down in Atlanta." -- Coach Steve Spurrier, on playing in the SEC Championship Game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Auburn vs. South Carolina, Dec. 4 -- In the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, South Carolina (9-3 overall, 5-3 SEC) has to take care of the football to have a chance in its second meeting with Auburn. The Gamecocks blew a 13-point lead in the first encounter, turning the ball over four times in the fourth quarter. South Carolina has been more protective of the football in recent weeks and hopes to continue that trend on Saturday.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Gamecocks have to get freshman RB Marcus Lattimore back on track. He managed only 48 rushing yards against Clemson and had just 33 yards in 14 attempts in the first meeting against Auburn. QB Stephen Garcia and WR Alshon Jeffery need to again wreak havoc; Jeffery caught eight passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns in the initial contest vs. the Tigers.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
PK Spencer Lanning -- The senior has come on strong, making 10 field goals in the last four games. He was sensation as a punter against Clemson, twice place the ball inside the 3-yard line.
SPUR Antonio Allen -- The junior continues to be one of the most improved players on the team. He made the play that broke Clemson's back with a 37-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter that gave the team a 26-7 lead.
WR Alshon Jeffery -- He continues to break records, catching five passes for 145 yards and a touchdown against Clemson. He hopes to duplicate or better his performance against Auburn from earlier this season -- eight catches, 192 yards and two touchdowns.
--RB Marcus Lattimore injured his leg but is expected to be full go in practice this week.
--QB Stephen Garcia injured the thumb on his right hand and his left shoulder, according to Steve Spurrier. He will be limited in the first two days of practice this week but is scheduled to start.
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