COLUMBIA — They promise there will be no scoreboard watching. No sneak peeks. No breaks in concentration.
They will be tempted.
About 300 miles southwest, Georgia and Auburn play a football game Saturday that means everything to South Carolina’s chances of winning the SEC East. Around the time that game ends, the Gamecocks will be taking the field at Williams-Brice Stadium for a 7 p.m. kickoff against Florida on ESPN2.
The nightcap is not expected to be close. USC is a two-touchdown favorite against Florida, which may be down to its third-string quarterback.
The game four hours away?
“No interest at all in that game,” USC coach Steve Spurrier said. “We have no control over it. We’re just going to talk about trying to play our best this week. Whatever happens within the division happens. But we are going to try to play our best against the Florida Gators when they come in.”
South Carolina likely needs two things to happen Saturday if it has any chance of representing the Eastern Division in Atlanta for next month’s SEC Championship Game. It starts with beating Florida on Saturday in its final conference game of the season.
Just as important, Auburn needs to beat Georgia.
The road to Atlanta isn’t completed there. Eventually, South Carolina needs Missouri to lose one of its final two games — at Ole Miss and home against Texas A&M. But, if the Gamecocks lose to the Gators, or if Georgia beats Auburn, the path to Atlanta would end short of a divisional title.
“We can’t win it this week,” senior guard Ronald Patrick said, “but we can lose it.”
“Coach Spurrier is probably going to keep us sheltered from all that information,” junior spur Sharrod Golightly said. “We’ve just got to handle our business, do what we have to do, and just come out and win.”
South Carolina’s business Saturday is much easier than anyone could have predicted early this season. The Gators have lost four straight games. With a 4-5 record, they’re below .500 for the first time in 21 years, snapping what was the SEC’s longest streak without a losing record.
Florida was ranked No. 10 in the Associated Press Preseason Poll, one spot ahead of instate rival Florida State. Now, the Gators have been out of the poll for three weeks, while the Seminoles are in position to make a trip to the BCS Championship Game in January.
The Gators’ struggles on offense — along with a plague of injuries on both sides of the ball — have been problematic this fall. Still, Florida’s defense is one of the top units in the SEC, good enough to give USC’s offense trouble.
“We can’t overlook a game like this,” Patrick said. “I believe Florida’s defense leads the conference in a lot of categories. They’re No. 1 or No. 2, so they’re still very good. So, we’re not overlooking them, and everybody knows that they’re still very good on defense.”
Regardless, South Carolina is in a position to do something previously thought impossible — hosting Florida, but being distracted elsewhere. It’s usually the position Florida finds itself in — near the top of the division, with other games affecting its standing.
By the end of the first quarter Saturday, the Gamecocks will know where they stand. They have said the right things this week. No sneak peeks. No breaks in concentration.
No matter the temptation.
“We’re going to let Auburn and Georgia take care of what they got to take care of, and we’re just going to focus on Florida,” senior cornerback Jimmy Legree said. “We know we’ve got a lot on the line right now. So, we’re all trying to stay positive, know what we’ve got ahead of us and try to make the most of it.”
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