COLUMBIA — Whether South Carolina is college football’s sixth-best team remains to be seen. The Gamecocks will get a lot of answers about how special this season can be Oct. 6 when they host Georgia in a game that could make or break their hopes of winning the Southeastern Conference’s East Division and playing for the league championship.
The Gamecocks have one game before then, this Saturday night at Kentucky, and they enter it ranked No. 6 in the Associated Press and coaches’ polls, one spot behind Georgia.
USC moved up one spot in the AP poll and two in the coaches’ poll after beating Missouri, 31-10, on Saturday night, while sixth-ranked Oklahoma lost to Kansas State.
USC has played just four games ever when ranked No. 6 or higher in the AP poll — three in 1984 and one in 2007. The Gamecocks were No. 6 in 2007 and lost to Vanderbilt. That was their highest ranking since they were No. 2 in 1984 and lost to Navy. They won twice as the fifth-ranked team in 1984.
These are heady times for the Gamecocks, who should be 5-0 and 3-0 in the SEC after playing Kentucky, which has stumbled to a 1-3 (0-1) start. The Wildcats lost 38-0 at Florida last week, following a 32-31 loss to Western Kentucky the previous week.
The last time USC visited Kentucky, in 2010, the Wildcats won and spoiled much of the good feeling surrounding USC’s upset of top-ranked Alabama in its previous game. But this Kentucky team is not that Kentucky team, which finished 6-7 and made a bowl game.
The 2010 trip to Lexington was the last time USC lost to an SEC East opponent. A win at Kentucky would make it 11 straight over divisional opponents and nine straight victories overall, tying a school record set in 1984, when USC started 9-0.
Though his team continues to cruise — it won its past three games by a combined 128-26 — USC coach Steve Spurrier doesn’t wish to discuss it with reporters. At his press conference after the Missouri game, he offered only an opening statement and did not take questions. He did the same thing on his Sunday teleconference.
When asked to explain Spurrier’s behavior, athletic department spokesman Steve Fink wrote in an email: “He’s not interested in taking questions right now. I’m sure he has his reasons.”
The Gamecocks struggling can’t be one of them, because they continue to impress, especially on defense. Missouri’s meaningless touchdown on its final drive marked the first time USC has allowed a red zone touchdown all season, in eight trips by its opponents. That 12.5-percent clip ranks first nationally.
It’s still early, and two of USC’s four opponents have been pushovers (East Carolina and Alabama-Birmingham), but USC currently ranks No. 19 in total defense (300.3 yards per game), No. 8 in rushing defense (67 yards), No. 7 in opponents’ third down conversions (23.73 percent) and No. 5 in sacks (15).
“If you can’t move the ball on third down, you’re going to have a tough time winning,” defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. “The total yards (stat) is not as big to me as rushing and third down defense.”
The Gamecocks will get free safety D.J. Swearinger, a senior third-year starter, back for the Kentucky game. He was suspended one game by the Southeastern Conference for a helmet-to-helmet hit against UAB.
“Basically, he’s just taking it as it’s a minor setback for a major comeback,” linebacker Shaq Wilson said last week. “I feel bad for Kentucky.”