COLUMBIA -- As of 6 p.m. Thursday, a little more than an hour before its season began, South Carolina was bracing for the worst.
Since Wednesday afternoon, it had been operating under the premise it could be without as many as a dozen players, while the NCAA determined their eligibility.
Things were so dire that the Gamecocks, down potentially both Rodney Paulk and Josh Dickerson, were prepared to go with a walk-on who had never played at middle linebacker. There's no telling what the interior defensive line would have looked like if Ladi Ajiboye, Melvin Ingram and Travian Robertson all had to sit.
"We would've been real short," said free safety Akeem Auguste, one of 10 players who were once staying at The Whitney Hotel. "We probably would've had like three D-linemen."
But a call came that cleared all but cornerback Chris Culliver and offensive tackle Jarriel King.
Auguste considered that a final decision for those who were staying at The Whitney, with the exception of tight end Weslye Saunders.
The Gamecocks take on Georgia a week from today, in a huge game for both teams' SEC chances.
"I'm guessing we're full go. That's how I'm seeing it," Auguste said. "I don't know exactly what's going on, but they gave us the go-ahead so I'm guessing that it's pretty much over."
Sources backed that up Friday, saying they expect the bulk of the NCAA's activity to be complete after Thursday's decision.
The NCAA is still expected to make a ruling concerning Saunders, who is being investigated for improper contact with agents and owing more than $5,000 to The Whitney in overdue rent. His current suspension is for lying to coach Steve Spurrier about why he was late to a practice -- a violation of team rules, as Spurrier put it.
After finally getting the news, South Carolina then went out and clobbered Southern Miss 41-13 in Spurrier's most complete opening-game win at USC.
Culliver's name hadn't surfaced until Thursday afternoon. His matter is unrelated to The Whitney.
Paperwork concerning an insurance policy, taken out to protect his draft standing, raised red flags with the NCAA, sources said. There were questions as to who was paying the policy's premium.
Coaches said they are hopeful the matter can be resolved by next week's Georgia game, but there are no guarantees.
Upset with the decision, Culliver changed out of his uniform and left Williams-Brice Stadium. King chose to stay, encouraging his teammates before and during the game.
The former North Charleston High standout was one of the first players out of the tunnel, running out to the theme from "2001."
King had to sit, a source said, because NCAA officials weren't satisfied with the amount of money he'd repaid The Whitney after falling behind on his bills. King is expected to have the matter resolved by the Georgia game, Spurrier said.
The coaching staff thought Thursday that Auguste and reserve cornerback C.C. Whitlock would also fall into the category of having to sit, but those players were cleared just before pregame warm-ups.
It thought, too, that Ajiboye and offensive guard Terrence Campbell might have to sit.
But the idea that a dozen players -- everyone involved with The Whitney -- would miss the opener ratcheted up the tension after the team arrived at the stadium Thursday, just after 5 p.m.
Even freshman running back Marcus Lattimore's fate was up in the air for a time Thursday, as officials sorted out whether he had accepted a meal from a booster. Lattimore, who scored twice in his debut, offered restitution and was cleared.
Spurrier admitted it was a stressful time for the Gamecocks, waiting to see what kind of team could be fielded.
"It looked like there was a possibility that a lot of them might not be able to play," Spurrier said. "It worked out. It was nice to get almost all the guys on the field."
Once the players, such as Auguste, learned they could play, it seemed to give the team a boost just before kickoff.
"Man, was it. Big relief," Auguste said. "It's like the burden just hopped off my shoulders."
The same went for the coaches, who were naturally stressed as they worked and reworked their depth charts. They had been scrambling for contingency plans since Monday, but didn't feel any sense of peace until that call finally came, just after 6 p.m.
"I've coached 11 years and never seen anything like it," assistant Shane Beamer said Friday on a Columbia radio station. "I hope I never do it again."
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