CLEMSON -- This is new.
This time of the year has been for wound-licking and soul-searching in recent years for South Carolina.
The past three months, though, have played out quite differently for the 9-3 Gamecocks, who now begin preparing for their first SEC title game appearance.
USC meets 12-0 Auburn on Saturday in Atlanta. Coach Steve Spurrier calls it the biggest game in the program's history.
"We're obviously fired up, excited to be in the game," Spurrier said.
The final month has marked a particular departure for South
Carolina. November was previously synonymous with coming unglued for the Gamecocks.
November 2010 began familiar enough with USC's worst showing of the season in a 21-point home loss to Arkansas.
But the Gamecocks responded with 22-point victories at Florida and Clemson -- a couple of locations that had been regular homes of horrors for South Carolina.
"When you can take the fans out of it," USC right tackle Hutch Eckerson said, "it definitely helps us."
Eckerson meant silencing the fans. But forcing them to leave works, also. Both stadiums, as hostile as any in the country, emptied in the fourth quarter thanks to USC routs.
A 69-24 victory against Troy, impressive as well, was sandwiched in between Florida and Clemson.
A three-win November? That hadn't happened since 1984.
A second straight victory against Clemson? That hadn't happened since 1968-70.
A nine-win regular season? It's only the third time that's happened in school history.
A bonus SEC game the first week in December? The precedent being set there.
"I'm glad we've broken a lot of barriers down this year," Eckerson said. "It was awesome to win here at Clemson."
And win going away. Not only will USC fans have bragging rights for the next calendar year, it's the second consecutive year the Gamecocks can talk about a thorough domination.
Clemson scored on its first drive, needing less than two minutes to go up 7-0. But the Tigers didn't score another point.
Clemson quarterback Kyle Parker was 4-of-14 passing after the initial drive. His final pass, before being pulled, was an interception that USC's Antonio Allen returned 37 yards for the score that effectively settled the game.
South Carolina's offense wasn't as fluid as it has been at varying points during the season, but the Gamecocks made necessary plays when they needed to -- particularly in the first half.
Alshon Jeffery had 126 of his 141 yards in the first two quarters, including an incredible throw from junior Stephen Garcia that resulted in a 37-yard touchdown.
The Gamecocks had 322 total yards, but freshman running back Marcus Lattimore ran for only 48 yards -- 44 of which came in the first half.
Still, the Gamecocks have won three games in a row entering the SEC title game.
"South Carolina's probably playing their best football of the year," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "They're much improved. It's going to be a huge, huge challenge for us."
Chizik's Tigers are still the hotter team traveling to the Georgia Dome.
Auburn has won all 12 of its games, including Friday's Iron Bowl, in which it erased a 24-0 deficit at Alabama.
"That was crazy to watch," Garcia said. "That's a great football team. You can't say it any other way. There's a reason they're ranked No. 2 in the country.
"They should be ranked No. 1. They played unbelievable to fight back and win that game."
Saturday's game is a rematch of Auburn's 35-27 victory back on Sept. 25. The Gamecocks led 20-7 in the second quarter before Tigers quarterback Cam Newton -- who has emerged as a Heisman favorite -- helped engineer a comeback that was aided by four USC turnovers in four fourth-quarter possessions.
Garcia didn't make it through that game. After his second fumble of the quarter -- both of which led to Auburn touchdowns -- Spurrier yanked him in favor of Connor Shaw. The freshman led promising drives, but threw interceptions in the red zone. Garcia has asserted himself ever since.
"We had our chances," Spurrier said. "We had a few turnovers. We didn't play our best game."
Spurrier said Sunday that Garcia has a mildly injured right thumb and left shoulder. He said Garcia will likely be limited in practice early this week, but he should be fine to play by Saturday.
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