FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Steve Spurrier couldn’t finish his opening statement following South Carolina’s blowout at Arkansas, much less gain full appreciation of its historical context, before stumbling on the big picture.
The Gamecocks’ 52-7 win Saturday was nice. Finally, USC put together a complete game, dominating from start to finish. Coupled with Georgia’s loss to Missouri — a game Spurrier asked about in his postgame news conference — USC plopped smack dab in the middle of the SEC East race.
From all angles, it was a memorable day for the program. In the long, winding flow of a football season, Spurrier knew it was just one game.
“Now, can we play like this — or even close to this — when we go to Knoxville next week?” Spurrier asked rhetorically. “That’s the question.”
South Carolina (5-1, 3-1 SEC East) will try to extend a four-game winning streak Saturday when it travels to Knoxville to play Tennessee. Until then, it has an interesting week ahead.
The Gamecocks have proven they can handle adversity, both on and off the field. Now this young team must show it can deal with success.
It’s a much different challenge than the program has faced most of the season. National scrutiny that flooded Columbia in the wake of Jadeveon Clowney’s absence against Kentucky will subside. The star defensive end played at Arkansas, and USC’s defense dominated.
Now the questions change.
Can South Carolina win the SEC East?
“We’ve mentioned just briefly that we’re still in the hunt for whatever we’re in, until we’re not,” Spurrier said Sunday on his teleconference. “But we don’t sit around talking about it a whole bunch. We know where we are, and we know there’s a chance if we can play pretty close to how we played this past week.”
If USC plays like they did in Fayetteville, Ark., it can beat any team in the country.
For the first time this season, the Gamecocks played four quarters with zero lulls. How thorough was their thumping? A couple notes for perspective:
The 52 points was USC’s most against an SEC opponent not named Kentucky since a 65-39 win at Mississippi State on Oct. 14, 1995. Freshman receiver Pharoh Cooper was 5 months old.
The 45-point margin of victory was USC’s largest blowout ever against a fellow SEC opponent not named Kentucky.
It was the kind of performance that reminded people why USC was ranked No. 6 nationally when the season began. The Gamecocks climbed to No. 11 in the Associated Press poll Sunday, their highest ranking since losing at Georgia on Sept. 7. They also opened as a touchdown favorite at Tennessee.
Players didn’t need Spurrier to update them on their current situation. Late Saturday, they knew what had been accomplished.
“It puts us back in it,” senior quarterback Connor Shaw said when he found out Georgia lost. “That’s about all I can say about that. We’ll just continue to keep playing and do what we need to do.”
USC still needs help. For the Gamecocks to represent the East Division in Atlanta at the SEC championship game, Georgia must lose another game. USC also needs to win the rest of their conference games, most notably a trip to Missouri in two weeks and a home game against Florida on Nov. 16.
Missouri leads the East, but it lost starting quarterback James Franklin to a shoulder injury while beating Georgia. Franklin’s status is unknown, but it’s likely he’ll be unavailable in two weeks. If so, it’s another significant break for USC.
The hypothetical could go on and on. It’s still early in the season. A lot has to be worked out before December. Right now, Clowney said the team isn’t looking that far ahead.
“That’s not really our concern because we’ve got to worry about what’s in front of us,” Clowney said. “We’ve got to play Tennessee next, so that’s what’s next on our list.”