COLUMBIA — The way it worked out, South Carolina’s final three regular season games are set up rather simply. While the Gamecocks were off last weekend, Florida beat Missouri and eliminated USC from the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division race. That left the Gamecocks chasing only the goals they can truly control.
Next GameWHO: No. 12 South Carolina (7-2, 5-2 SEC) vs. Arkansas (4-5, 2-3)WHEN: Saturday, noonWHERE: Williams-Brice StadiumTV: WCSC (CBS)LINE: USC by 14
Win out, including their bowl game, and they will equal last season’s program-best 11-2 record. Win three of the final four games, a run that starts Saturday afternoon at home against Arkansas, and they will have their third 10-win season, and Steve Spurrier will have more wins than any coach in school history.
Beat Arkansas, and the Gamecocks almost certainly will finish undefeated at home for the first time since 1987, because their only other home game is next week against Wofford. Beat Clemson in the regular season finale, and they will have four straight victories over their in-state rival for the second time ever, and the first since 1951-54.
Though Spurrier won’t deliver USC its first SEC championship this year, another first for the program is possible — a spot in a “big four” bowl game. But it depends on what happens in the regular season’s final week and in the SEC title game Dec. 1 in Atlanta.
The Gamecocks are currently No. 8 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings. The top 14 teams in the final rankings are eligible for at-large consideration for one of the four BCS games outside of the national championship game.
The Sugar Bowl is likely to get priority in the at-large selection process. That’s because the Sugar Bowl gets the SEC champion, and the presumptive SEC champion, Alabama, is on track for the national title game.
So, USC obviously would need to win out, and have Alabama win out over Texas A&M, Western Carolina and Auburn. Alabama would likely face Georgia in Atlanta, unless the Bulldogs slip this week against hapless Auburn. If that happens, Florida goes to Atlanta.
In the probable Alabama-Georgia matchup, USC would need Alabama to win big. The Gamecocks would also need Florida State, currently 8-1, to beat Florida in the regular season finale. That means Georgia, Florida and LSU — who are currently fifth, sixth, and seventh in the BCS rankings — would all have two losses, just like USC.
No matter the final BCS rankings, the Sugar Bowl could pick any team eligible for an at-large spot from among the top 14. The bowl’s officials would decide which teams would make for the best draw, as it did last year with Michigan and Virginia Tech.
Losses by Georgia and Florida could certainly help USC’s cause, as would the likelihood that the Gamecocks’ fans would travel well to celebrate their first major bowl game. But neither will guarantee anything for the Gamecocks, especially since they lost some star power when tailback Marcus Lattimore suffered a serious right knee injury Oct. 27 against Tennessee.
Another potential mitigating factor is that the Jan. 2 Sugar Bowl is on a Wednesday, and perhaps bowl officials would opt for a two-loss LSU team whose fans don’t need to travel as far and take as much time away from work. But LSU still has a relatively challenging game this weekend against Mississippi State, albeit in Baton Rouge, before closing with Mississippi and Arkansas.
So while USC would need some help to spend New Year’s Eve in New Orleans, it is far from a pipe dream.
“I would love to go there,” tailback Kenny Miles said with a smile. “That would be fun.”
The possibility of an at-large BCS bid is “very known throughout the team,” said spur outside linebacker DeVonte Holloman. “But we’ve got to take it one week at a time and not focus on the BCS, per se, and focus on what we can control. You can’t start looking ahead. We probably looked ahead a little bit in this stretch of games we had.”
The Gamecocks’ season hit a snag — and they seemed destined for a second-tier bowl game — after losing back-to-back road games to top 10 teams, LSU and Florida. Clemson seems to be USC’s toughest remaining game, and that could be for a Sugar Bowl bid. But USC’s players are well aware that they have lost three straight games to Arkansas, by a combined score of 118-64.
“Right now, we’re really just trying to focus on Arkansas,” said tight end Justice Cunningham. “Because they’ve been killing us for the past couple of years.”