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October 20, 2012
GAINESVILLE, Fla. - It wasn't that long ago that a 6-2 record after eight games would have been considered quite an accomplishment at South Carolina.
This year, it's a stinging reminder of what the Gamecocks had - and have now lost.
USC's dreams of an SEC championship are one heartbeat away from flatlining after the No. 9 Gamecocks gave Florida three first-half touchdowns in a 44-11 loss on Saturday. The loss eliminated nearly any hope the Gamecocks have of winning the SEC East and playing for the league title.
The best the Gamecocks can finish is 6-2 in the league, while if the Gators lose to Georgia next week and then somehow lose to hapless Missouri at home on Nov. 3, they would also be 6-2. But Florida would still have the tiebreaker over USC.
USC has to beat Tennessee and Arkansas, and hope that Georgia beats Florida next week and then loses to either Ole Miss or Auburn to also be 6-2 and force a three-way tie. The Gamecocks would win the three-way tiebreaker, because they would have just one division loss (Florida) while Florida and Georgia would have two.
It's a hope slimmer than wishing for Saturday's first half to be re-played. But all the Gamecocks can do is try to win their remaining games.
That won't happen if they don't find an answer for why they suddenly can't make the plays that they made throughout their first six games.
"We're embarrassed right now," coach Steve Spurrier said, after calling out the team's character and saying that USC laid the ball down for Florida to take, as if the Gamecocks weren't interested in winning a title. "We don't deserve to be a Top-15 team."
Two weeks ago, USC thrashed Georgia, rose to No. 3 in the country and was the toast of college football. The SEC and even the national championships were being heavily discussed.
Now, the Gamecocks are trying to figure out where their season will go - they knew that an October crucible of Georgia-LSU-Florida in consecutive weeks would mean the difference between good and great.
With two straight losses, the season can still turn out well, and match last season's 11-win total if the Gamecocks win out. But the prizes that USC was just in contention for two weeks ago now seem like a distant memory.
"It's called character," defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. "We're not going to throw the season away because we lost two in a row."
There are bigger questions beside effort and character facing the Gamecocks, though. The offense, while it has played two strong defenses in LSU and Florida, seems broken. The Gamecocks cannot run the ball - Marcus Lattimore had three carries on Saturday, after the Gators leaped to a 21-3 lead - and Connor Shaw was ineffective for the second straight week. Spurrier said he didn't know who the quarterback would be next week against Tennessee, while Shaw and Dylan Thompson each said they supported each other and may the best man win.
The defense played well but can't do everything. The Gamecocks constantly hurt themselves with poor field position and also can't give the defense good field position, to potentially set up a turnover and a short field. That's on the special teams, which had another disaster of a game and had Spurrier wondering why Florida's players don't put it on the ground, or let returners run right by them.
Everything was going right before the Georgia game, and the Gamecocks could see a brightly glowing future. They can still have a memorable year - if they win out, they'll post their second consecutive 11-win season and beat Clemson for the fourth straight year, something not done since 1951-54.
But will that be enough to overcome what will be remembered as a chance to truly do something memorable, and USC gave it away?
"It was in our hands tonight," Ace Sanders said. "We dropped the ball."
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