COLUMBIA — For three weeks in November 1984, well before any of South Carolina’s current players were even conceived, the Gamecocks walked among college football’s elite.
They were ranked No. 5 in the Associated Press poll for two weeks, winning at North Carolina State, then over No. 11 Florida State in their final home game of the season. They were 9-0 and had visions of a national championship. They jumped to No. 2 in the poll, then promptly lost 38-21 at a Navy team that finished 4-6-1, with just one other win over a Division I-A team.
In the years since, the Gamecocks have flirted with the top five, including one week at No. 6 in 2007, before they lost to Vanderbilt. That was their highest ranking since 1984. They were No. 6 again Saturday night when they beat No. 5 Georgia in convincing fashion, 35-7.
Now, halfway through the regular season, the Gamecocks are up to No. 3 in both the AP and coaches’ poll. Only the latter counts in the Bowl Championship Series standings, which will be released for the first time next Sunday. This is just their fourth appearance in the top five, joining those three weeks in 1984.
USC climbed three spots because it beat Georgia, and No. 4 LSU and No. 3 Florida State also lost, to Florida and North Carolina State. This week, USC (6-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) gets a trip to ninth-ranked LSU, which is 47-6 with 21 straight wins at home under eighth-year coach Les Miles.
But Miles’ offense is trying to find itself with new quarterback Zach Mettenberger. The Tigers are No. 77 nationally in yards per game (394) and gained just 200 in a 14-6 loss at Florida. They will face a USC defense that has allowed six touchdowns all season, two of which came in the final two minutes against Missouri and Georgia, when the Gamecocks’ reserves were playing.
Many who witnessed USC’s performance against Georgia left Williams-Brice Stadium with ears ringing and minds dancing with thoughts of the Gamecocks perhaps making a run at an undefeated regular season.
The LSU game, and a trip to Florida the next week, will go a long way toward answering that question. Florida is up to No. 4, and if the Gators win at Vanderbilt this week, USC-Florida could be the Gamecocks’ first ever matchup of top five teams — if USC beats LSU, that is.
USC has started 7-0 just one other time — 1984. As the Gamecocks return to a lofty place they haven’t been since then, they are confident they can handle the buzz that comes with it.
“We received just about all the hype we could for this game (against Georgia), and we handled it perfectly,” said quarterback Connor Shaw. “We didn’t let it bother us. We knew how to handle it and we came out ready to play.”
USC is learning how to win as a highly ranked team. The Gamecocks have been in the top 10 all season. Before this season, they were just 9-10 all-time when ranked in the top 10.
“There are still six games left and all kind of bad stuff can still happen to a lot of teams,” said USC coach Steve Spurrier. “I would say we probably have the toughest schedule of those other (undefeated) teams, I would guess. But time will tell. We certainly like where we are right now, but we’re smart enough to know it’s a difficult, difficult road for us.”
Spurrier said starting defensive tackle Byron Jerideau and backup cornerback Akeem Auguste suffered sprained ankles against Georgia. “We’re going to wait if they’re going to be able to get back this week,” Spurrier said. … Spurrier praised redshirt freshman Brandon Shell for his performance Saturday. Shell, a Goose Creek High graduate, played in place of starting right tackle Mike Matulis (sprained shoulder) and handled himself well against outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who is projected by some analysts as the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft. “(Shell) blocked him,” Spurrier said. “He pushed him past the quarterback. (Jones) is sort of a wide rusher. He pushed him past several times.”