COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP)—South Carolina keeps creeping closer to a first division title since joining the Southeastern Conference 18 years ago, but Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier isn’t ready to focus on that yet.
If South Carolina beats Tennessee this weekend and a few other things fall into place, including a Georgia win over Florida, the Gamecocks could play for a spot in the SEC title game the next week at home against Arkansas and not have everything hinge on the trip the following week to take on the Gators in Gainesville, a place they’ve never won.
But Spurrier and South Carolina fans have seen things fall apart before. In the past three years, the Gamecocks have gone 4-11 in their final five games of the regular season.
“We’ve been 5-2 a bunch of times, as we all know,” Spurrier said. “Whether or not we can finish strongly remains to be seen.”
The Gamecocks should get a critical piece of their offense back Saturday. Spurrier said leading rusher freshman Marcus Lattimore’s sprained ankle should be healed enough for him to get significant playing time, if not the start.
Fitting a topsy-turvy year for the SEC East, the teams in this year’s Tennessee-South Carolina game are coming from different directions in the standings.
These aren’t the typical Vols, trying to stay in the SEC East race. Instead, they are 0-4 in the SEC, coming off a pair of 41-14 losses to Georgia and Alabama. The Gamecocks are on top of the division at 3-2 and are a couple of fourth quarter meltdowns away from even bigger things.
But Tennessee has the team’s full attention this week. After all, it was less than two weeks ago the Gamecocks followed up a win over than No.1 Alabama with their first loss in more than a decade to Kentucky.
“Just thinking about that Kentucky game puts a bitter taste in our mouths and we don’t want to experience that again,” wide receiver Tori Gurley said. “We’re supposed to beat a team, then we need to go out there and steamroll them.”
And while Spurrier is repeating warnings about collapses in seasons before, he also thinks this year’s team is a little different.
“I don’t sense we’ve got as many goof-off type guys as we used to have around here. We don’t have too many,” Spurrier said. “I think our players understand that, if we can improve, there’s some things that we can achieve that haven’t been done before.”
South Carolina also had solid offensive weapons. Along with Lattimore, the Gamecocks also have quarterback Stephen Garcia, who is completing an SEC-best 72.1 percent of his passes, and Alshon Jeffery, who leads the league at seven catches and 121 yards receiving per game.
“The formula on any good offense is great runner, great receivers and a quarterback who’s playing really well,” Tennessee coach Derek Dooley said. “And they’ve got all three.”
With only a month left in the season, the SEC East is starting to shake out. South Carolina and Florida are the only teams left that control their own destiny. The Gators play Georgia this weekend, and if the Bulldogs win and Vanderbilt loses to Arkansas, then the Gamecocks could clinch the SEC East with a win Nov. 6 against the Razorbacks.
Otherwise, it could come down to South Carolina’s game Nov. 13 at Florida. The Gamecocks are 1-17 against the Gators since joining the SEC and are 0-12 all time in Gainesville.
Spurrier, who won a Heisman Trophy as quarterback and his only national championship as coach at Florida, wouldn’t say if he would drop his lifelong disdain for Georgia long enough to root for the Bulldogs this weekend.
“I better not answer that question,” Spurrier said.