COLUMBIA — They say it all the time, and it’s on a big sign above one entrance to the Spurrier Indoor Practice Facility.
“Beat the East. Win the State.”
The second is never known until Thanksgiving. The first?
Beating third-ranked Georgia on Saturday gives South Carolina the best chance in Will Muschamp’s three-year tenure to step toward it.
“It counts as one,” Muschamp said Sunday. “We got a lot of football left to play. Seven conference games after this one. This only counts as one, doesn’t count for one and a half.”
Well, kinda. This one counts, really, as two.
Saturday’s winner gets a game ahead in the standings and the tiebreaker. If the final SEC game left Georgia and the Gamecocks tied for first place with the same number of conference losses, the Sept. 8 winner would play in the Dec. 1 SEC Championship Game.
That means that the winner has a chance to stub its toe once in those final seven conference games and not lose any ground. Each of the team’s remaining schedules are loaded with pitfalls.
The Bulldogs are at Missouri, at LSU, host Auburn and play Florida in Jacksonville. The Gamecocks host Missouri and Texas A&M, and travel to Kentucky, Mississippi and Florida.
Georgia lost a lot of personnel that came within a couple of plays of the national championship last year, while the Gamecocks are stronger, deeper and more prepared to handle the stress of the moment. USC played the Bulldogs tough in last year’s 24-10 loss in Athens and is hoping the thrill of a trembling Williams-Brice Stadium will be the key to coming out ahead this year.
“Last year’s game was probably one of the most physical we played in,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “Obviously the challenge of going to Columbia and playing, we talked to our kids about it a lot over the summer, an opportunity to go into an environment that will be as tough as any.”
Saturday’s game was the talk of the preseason, a chance for USC to really make some noise and enter the national discussion and the first test for a Bulldogs team that returned to elite level last year. Each coach and all players refused to discuss it at length, because why would they?
They each had a game before that one. USC crushed Coastal Carolina 49-15, while Georgia hammered Austin Peay 45-0.
Now, it’s here. Each coach will speak early in the week (Smart went Monday, Muschamp goes Tuesday) and then spend each waking second dissecting flaws in the other’s game plan, hoping for that one key break that could mean victory.
Saturday’s loser can still have a magnificent season, and who knows? The schedule breaks right, perhaps Saturday’s one game is overcome.
But having that one game in pocket going forward would feel awfully nice.