ATLANTA -- The South Carolina football team is already a winner even before today's Southeastern Conference Championship Game kicks off.
How, you ask? Well, because it's here.
Even a loss today to Auburn cannot diminish what South Carolina has done -- not just in football, but as an overall athletic program -- in a year that will always be remembered by long-suffering USC fans who wondered if this period of success would ever actually arrive.
They had been teased by the idea of winning in the past, only to experience varying degrees of heartbreak. But 2010 has been very different.
"You're developing a culture of winning and winners," South Carolina Athletic Director Eric Hyman said this week. "We expect to win."
Hyman said the heyday began last fall when the women's soccer team won an SEC title.
It was propelled into a different level of the atmosphere when the school's baseball team made it back to the College World Series for the first time since 2004. And then the Gamecocks won the tournament, laying claim to the school's first major national championship.
It had won titles only in women's track and equestrian previously.
"You can't say it enough. It's a great time to be a Gamecock," USC baseball coach Ray Tanner said. "It's been encompassing. There's so much happiness and jubilation in Gamecock nation."
Just imagine the joy, then, if South Carolina is able to pull the mild upset in its first SEC title game appearance.
The 18th-ranked Gamecocks (9-3) and second-ranked Tigers (12-0) kick off at 4 p.m. today inside the Georgia Dome.
"It's certainly something we've all wanted for so long," said Tommy Suggs, quarterback of the only USC football team to win a conference title, the 1969 ACC championship.
As much as South Carolina has on the line -- the potential of its first Bowl Championship Series berth, a spot in the Jan. 4 Sugar Bowl -- Auburn is playing for even more.
With a win, the Tigers would land in the national championship game.
This will be the second meeting between these teams this season. Back in September, Auburn scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter for a 35-27 come-from-behind victory over the Gamecocks.
South Carolina is already on hallowed football ground today. In addition to its first SEC East title, the Gamecocks have won nine games for only the third time in the program's history.
The win last week against Clemson gave them two in a row in the series for the first time since 1968-70.
South Carolina had never won at Florida or beaten a No. 1-ranked team (defending national champ Alabama) until this season either.
In 2010, the Gamecocks defeated Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida and Clemson.
"It's new for our players," said head coach Steve Spurrier, referring to the Atlanta trip, "but it was new for our players to go to Florida (and win). It was new for them to beat Alabama. It was new to beat Clemson again.
"So we've done some different things that hadn't happened in a long time around here."
Even after the division-clinching win at Florida, Spurrier credited Hyman's vision and dedication to building quality facilities.
Williams-Brice Stadium has seen several facelifts. Hyman often points to the Dodie Anderson Academic Enrichment Center, the school's new academic center for student-athletes, as the central piece in his facilities masterplan.
"It takes a sincere commitment," Hyman said. "It's not waving a magic wand and saying, 'Abracadabra.' It doesn't work that way. You've got to build a foundation and have good coaching."
It's taken some time, but it sure appears as if South Carolina's athletic program has arrived. At the very least, it's closer than it's ever been.
"I think we have a chance here -- and I don't say we're there yet -- to where we can turn the corner," Hyman said. "You're getting people in the state of South Carolina to begin to believe in the University of South Carolina."
Reach Travis Haney at email@example.com.
'I hope our guys can pull it out. I just want to do my part,' lifelong Gamecocks fan Jantz Baker said Friday just outside the Palmetto Moon sports apparel store in Mount Pleasant. He was putting his new Gamecock flag on his car for the drive to Atlanta th×