USC hoping big-game experience pays off

South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw drops back to pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Missouri at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C., Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Brett Flashnick)

COLUMBIA — The enormity of tonight’s game between sixth-ranked South Carolina and fifth-ranked Georgia is overwhelming if you try to process it all at once.

Never, in four previous chances, have the Gamecocks defeated a top 10 team when they also were in the top 10. Never have they defeated Georgia in three straight meetings, or won 10 consecutive games — both of which they could accomplish tonight.

Only once before have the Gamecocks played in a game with a better combined poll ranking than tonight’s contest, and that was on the road in 1987.

Just twice have they started 6-0 — 1984 and 1988. And not since 1984 have the Gamecocks been ranked higher than No. 6, a barrier they will crack if they beat the Bulldogs.

Despite the uncommon nature of this game for a program with a modest history — USC is 45-105-5 all-time against ranked teams — many of the current Gamecocks have already performed on stages this potentially overwhelming.

In 2010, they beat top-ranked Alabama at home, propelling them to their first Southeastern Conference championship game. Last season, they traveled to Arkansas for a matchup of top 10 teams, and though they lost, they won four straight to close the year, including a bowl game victory over Nebraska that gave them 11 wins in a season for the first time ever.

The Gamecocks believe the importance of those experiences cannot be understated.

“We feel more comfortable out there,” said senior tight end Justice Cunningham. “Big-time moments, most of our players have played and made big-time plays, because we’ve been there before. It’s a big effect, because when it’s new to you, you don’t know how to act in certain situations.

“You’re not ready for the lights at times. But when you’ve been there before, it’s like practice. You’re used to doing it.”

Said junior tailback Marcus Lattimore: “I think that’s very important.”

This week, USC’s showdown with its biggest SEC rival felt exactly like what it is — one of the most anticipated sporting events Columbia has ever hosted. It started Sunday for Lattimore, the well wishes following him everywhere he went — from his apartment to restaurants to campus.

“It’s a big game, but we’ve got to stay focused and not look at all that,” he said.

While Columbia swelled with people Friday, it was easier for the Gamecocks to wear their blinders, because they had no other option. The team stayed in a hotel Friday, as it does the night before all home games.

But everybody knows this is no ordinary home game. Columbia police planned to man the Five Points bar district with 53 officers and enlist the help of military police from Fort Jackson. The price tag: about $11,000 in overtime pay.

Win or lose for USC, the revelry surrounding the game will last all day, as ESPN’s “College GameDay” pregame show is making its sixth trip to Columbia, and broadcasting from the Horseshoe on USC’s campus beginning at 9 a.m. — 10 hours before kickoff.

USC’s players will see none of it, until they step off the bus outside Williams-Brice Stadium, where they are 21-3 since the beginning of 2009, including 10-3 against SEC opponents.

Three of those 10 wins came over ranked teams — one in 2009 and two in 2010 — and the biggest, by far, was the Alabama game. That, Cunningham recalled, was the first time he felt the enormity of a big game.

“Now, it’s just basically being part of the SEC,” he said. “Every game is going to be a big game. You keep winning, the next one is going to be bigger than the last one.”