Gamecocks juggle emotions as game to decide SEC East nears
COLUMBIA -- What a careful balancing act this week for South Carolina's football team.
One side of the beam: Acknowledge that this week's game at Florida, which will decide the SEC East title, is one of the biggest in school history.
The other: In doing so, risk the fact that the players might be seized by big-game paralyzation.
South Carolina's coaches are working this week to push the buttons that illustrate what the game means, while maintaining a manageable stress
level for a program that is still charting its height on the closet door with notches into the wood.
"It's like any other game, really," said Steve Spurrier Jr., USC's receivers coach who also coached with his dad at Florida.
Wait, any other game? That's hardly the case, considering the Gamecocks put a trip to the SEC title game near the top of their list of goals. But that's the message being delivered.
"Playing Georgia, playing Florida … eh, it's a big game," Spurrier Jr. said, echoing Spurrier Sr.'s sentiment this week. "It's an SEC game, a big game, obviously. It means more, but you've still just got to prepare the same way.
"Everybody knows what it means. We don't have to continue to emphasize that or coach any differently than we would. It's an SEC game. It's a good team. It's going to be a loud environment. That's why we all came here to play and coach."
The Gamecocks (6-3, 4-3 SEC) have played their best in Spurrier's tenure when they've had very little to lose.
Taking down then-No. 1 Alabama earlier this season was a prime example. So was taking then-No. 1 Florida to the fourth quarter a year ago in Columbia.
But this is different. Florida (6-3, 4-3), ranked 24th and not first, has its flaws. And this is a road game. And there's a ton on the line.
"We're going down there understanding the importance, but also understanding it's a football game," Steve Spurrier said Tuesday, repeating nearly the same thing on his radio show Thursday night. "To play your best, you have to be somewhat relaxed. You can't get all hyper and tensed up and scared and stuff like that. So, we've got to look forward to the challenge."
This is a new spot for the Gamecocks, at least under Spurrier.
In 2000, South Carolina had a winner-take-all game at Florida for the East.
The Gamecocks jumped out to an early lead, but the Gators, coached by Spurrier, came back to win.
Spurrier arrived at South Carolina in 2004, talking immediately about elevating the Gamecocks to soon compete for division and conference titles.
Six years later, a longer wait than many wanted, and USC is in that position.
"The stage is set and everything's there for us to take," Gamecocks senior captain Pat DiMarco said. "We're playing at their home field, and they've got to defend it. We're going down there to knock down the doors and take it over.
"This has turned into a one-game season. What we do here will make or break our season. If we win this game, then all of our goals are out there. We'll be on top of the world."
DiMarco is one of several Floridians that Spurrier recruited with the idea that, one day, the Gamecocks would topple the Gators in the East.
DiMarco grew up going to games at the Swamp. His uncle, pro golfer Chris DiMarco, went to Florida, along with several other family members.
As much as anyone on the team, DiMarco grasps the gravity of this game.
"It's unreal. A senior couldn't dream this one up," DiMarco said. "One of my things was, I wanted to beat Florida. With this being the whole situation, playing for the SEC (East), it's huge. I couldn't ask for anything better."
Ellis Johnson said walk-on Marty Markett will start at the field corner Saturday, with C.C. Whitlock (concussion) a "fallback" option.
Johnson said Akeem Auguste, DeVonte Holloman and D.J. Swearinger would rotate at the free and strong safety positions.