COLUMBIA — A second chance is a powerful thing. It can breathe new life into a football team, offering hope when there previously was none.
South Carolina knows it was gifted a second chance in the SEC East race after a dismal, upset loss at Tennessee last weekend. After the game, as players learned of the other upsets across the division, their surprise was genuine. Suddenly, the Gamecocks knew they were still playing for something this week.
No. 20 South Carolina travels to No. 5 Missouri for a 7 p.m. kickoff Saturday (ESPN2). The Gamecocks’ streak of 56 straight weeks ranked in the top 25 will be on the line, but the bigger prize is also attainable.
“There’s no other way to state it. It’s the biggest game,” sophomore linebacker Kaiwan Lewis said. “We beat them, and we’re right in the thick of things, as we still are. If we beat them, we can definitely solidify some things.”
With a win, South Carolina (5-2, 3-2 SEC East) pulls within a game of Missouri. It would still have the month of November to settle things in the division.
It won’t be easy.
The Tigers (7-0, 3-0 SEC East) have been the biggest surprise of the college football season. They were predicted to finish sixth in the SEC East this season. In the first BCS standings of 2013, they ranked fifth nationally.
Missouri can essentially clinch the SEC East title with a win. The Tigers already own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Florida and Georgia, which are tied with USC for second place in the East. With four conference games left, Missouri would have an almost insurmountable three-game lead.
But USC could climb back into the middle of the race. A one-game lead for Missouri would be much too close for comfort. The Tigers have a road trip to Ole Miss and a home game against Texas A&M next month, both of which are tough games.
“They beat Florida and Georgia obviously, and they’re in pretty good shape,” USC coach Steve Spurrier said. “If we’re fortunate enough to go out there and get a win, we would be in pretty good shape. Well, not great shape. We would have hopes, as we all know.
“So it’s a huge game for us. It’s a game that’s going to decide whether or not we’re in the division hunt or not. Simple as that. I think all of our players know that. We’ve talked about that briefly. Hopefully we can regroup to go out to Missouri and play our best game of the year.”
USC only has a chance because it got help last weekend from Georgia and Florida. The Bulldogs had a shocking loss to Vanderbilt, while the Gators lost to Missouri. For both, it was their second straight loss.
The Gamecocks still need Georgia to lose once more this season. With games against Florida and No. 11 Auburn left on the schedule, it’s certainly possible.
“That’s the competition in the SEC,” Lewis said. “It’s been a dogfight between all of us in the East right now, and everybody’s still climbing to the top. It’s kind of a blessing to be No. 2 right now. So we have a shot at Missouri this week, and hopefully we can overtake them at some point before the season is out. It’s just been a dogfight in the SEC right now.”
That dogfight will be intense as ever Saturday night in the Show Me State. Now, USC players know the scenario, how they can get to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. They know they need more help.
But, mostly, they know they can’t have another loss.
“It’s possible. We know we have to win every game — every game from here,” sophomore linebacker Marcquis Roberts said. “We put ourselves in this situation. We’ve just got to make the best out of it.”