Gamecocks Control Their Own Destiny
While the defeat at the hands of LSU stings, it only reinforces the importance of the win over Georgia two weeks earlier. Had the Gamecocks lost in Athens, they would be facing an 0-2 deficit in SEC play and would likely be destined to finish in their usual fourth-or-worse place in the East. With USC's September SEC-split, however, they still control their own destiny heading into the most manageable four game stretch of the season. This is not to underestimate South Carolina's opponents over the next four weeks, but USC will likely be favored in all of these games, and it will be more important than ever for them to take each game one at a time before entering the final stretch of the season.
Over the course of Spurrier's time at South Carolina, his teams have beaten most of the teams they should beat, while knocking off a few they shouldn't. That trend will have to continue here. Mississippi State will come to Columbia this weekend, just two Saturdays removed from one of their biggest wins in the Sylvester Croom era — a thrilling 19-14 victory over Auburn. Even though South Carolina's defense has struggled stopping the run, the Gamecocks will crowd the box and force MSU's carrousel of quarterbacks to beat them through the air. State plays inspired defense, but if the Gamecock defense can slow down MSU stud running back Anthony Dixon, they should be able to outscore the Bulldogs' offense.
The biggest game in the upcoming stretch will take place on ESPN's Thursday Night Football, when likely-undefeated Kentucky will ride a wave of confidence into town after scoring huge victories over in-state rival Louisville and former SEC-West champ Arkansas. Kentucky will bring a completely different game plan than Mississippi State, with their high flying offense led by All-SEC quarterback Andre Woodson, South Carolina prep product Rafael Little out of the backfield, and wide receiver Keenan Burton. Woodson has thrown 11 touchdowns on the season, while Little is averaging seven yards a pop on the ground. South Carolina's offense will need to begin to show signs of life, and the defense will need to pressure Woodson. The Gamecock defense, which ranks #2 in the country against the pass, will look to frustrate the senior quarterback, who hasn't thrown an interception since November of last year, a streak of 296 passes.
Next, the Gamecocks will travel to Chapel Hill for their first contest with North Carolina since 1991. The Tar Heels have struggled, dropping their last three games after winning the season opener against James Madison. Redshirt freshman quarterback T.J. Yates has looked solid throwing the football as a young player, but the Tar Heels have struggled running the football, with only 79.5 yards a game on the ground. The Gamecocks' hard-hitting secondary should also match up well with their passing game. Coach Butch Davis is one of the best and will build the program up right, but he will need time, and the Gamecocks should bring a 'W' back home after this one.
Carolina will return to Williams-Brice Stadium for the final game of the four-game stretch, when they play host to Vanderbilt. Coach Bobby Johnson always has the Commodores ready to play, but the Gamecocks have not lost to Vandy since the 21-game losing streak, while Spurrier has never suffered a defeat at the hands of the Commodores.
South Carolina does not only need to win these four games, but must also do what the past two teams have done: improve as the season goes on. With Brinkley out, it should give junior Marvin Sapp a chance to settle into the middle linebacker spot or give true freshman Melvin Ingram valuable experience heading into the "orange crush". It was the Vanderbilt game last year when the Gamecocks finally found the right combination on the offensive line, and the offense began to click when the unlikely addition of Justin Sorenson settled the line. A candidate for unlikely contributor this year may be redshirt freshman guard Seaver Brown, who has impressed the coaches with his progress in practice and will get the start at left guard in this weekend's game against Mississippi State, though many thought it would be another year before he would be ready. Lastly, this stretch of games should give the passing game time to work itself out and give the freshman receivers valuable playing time. The Gamecocks will need to get the young receivers and new starting quarterback Chris Smelley on the same page in order to be in good shape for the final third of the schedule.
If the Gamecocks do all these things, they will find themselves at 7-1 heading to Knoxville to play a down Tennessee team. The Tennessee and Arkansas games are both winnable for the Gamecocks, but are also both on the road. Thus, a split may be more realistic. Ole Miss showed that Florida is not perfect last week, and a Florida slip-up along the way, most likely in their October 6th game at LSU, would allow the Gamecocks to split with Tennessee and Arkansas and still head into their final week of SEC play in control of their own destiny.
If that scenario plays out, the Gamecocks would play host to the Gators on November 10 in a battle for all the SEC-East marbles. A similar situation occurred in the 2001 SEC finale, but this time Steve Spurrier would be on the Gamecocks' sideline.
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