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Gamecocks are Bama's top SEC threat

10/7/2012

We started Saturday believing that the LSU Tigers, wobbly as they had been, were still likely the second-best team in the SEC. But the conversation had started to evolve so that perhaps the Georgia Bulldogs or South Carolina Gamecocks, or maybe the Florida Gators, were creeping toward the Tigers.

We ended Saturday believing that the Gamecocks, who held a supposedly unstoppable Georgia offense to a touchdown in garbage time in a 28-point win, are the league's No. 2. Heck, they'll now be the nation's No. 3 thanks to FSU.

So Dec. 1, not Nov. 3, could be the date we should be circling for Alabama's toughest test: the SEC title game.

Saturday was a mechanical dismantling of Georgia, which was outscored 21-0 and outgained 177-39 in the first quarter, then never recovered. Bulldogs coach Mark Richt, often expressionless on the sideline, is now 2-15 against teams that finish the season ranked (presuming South Carolina does so).

It was the first time the Gamecocks and Bulldogs had met as top-10 teams. One looked as though it belonged.

"We sent a message to the whole country," junior running back Marcus Lattimore told reporters after the game. "This isn't the old South Carolina. We can play with y'all. We can play with anyone."

Things have changed. The Gamecocks -- a little more than a decade removed from one win in two seasons -- have won 10 consecutive games, the longest win streak in the country. They've won 12 consecutive games against SEC East opponents.

And that might be the most important note moving forward. Because even if South Carolina lapses next week at LSU -- and sure, it could happen -- the game the following week at Florida probably will be the division championship game. So a dozen straight against the East is something meaningful to carry in your hip pocket if you're the Gamecocks.

In the South Carolina football building Friday afternoon, there was an air of confidence that was rarely (if ever) present when I covered the team from 2007 to '11. In big games, the Gamecocks always had felt like Charlie Brown to the rest of the league's Lucy. Now they are Lucy, or at least they were Saturday.

The staff's visible confidence comes mostly because it now has the players. Look no further for evidence than menacing end Jadeveon Clowney, the third of four consecutive Mr. Footballs in South Carolina to enroll at the state's flagship school.

Depth and better line play, especially on defense, also have altered the brand of ball the Gamecocks are playing. Previously, if a player went down, the team was crippled. Now there are defensive rotations, and if one offensive lineman is struggling, someone else can step in.
Redshirt freshman Brandon Shell, for example, started at right tackle and played exceptionally. He hadn't started since the opener, when he was sucking wind early in the game and met the bench. Shell was a player, by the way, whom Nick Saban coveted and didn't get. Receiver Shaq Roland, who hasn't done much yet in his freshman year, was another.

Georgia thought South Carolina would lean heavily on Lattimore, and it eventually did to control the clock, but credit Steve Spurrier for killing the Bulldogs early on play-action stuff. That built the lead, along with the athletic interception by underrated linebacker-safety DeVonte Holloman and the long punt-return TD by Ace Sanders.

That is another illustration of how far the Gamecocks have come. Sanders, as a junior, has turned into one of the best difference-makers in the game on special teams; the program never really had those kinds of guys on returns, not under Spurrier.

A defensive line that lost first-rounder Melvin Ingram and valuable tackle Travian Robertson dominated what was supposedly an improving Georgia offensive line.

Clowney, who is learning more and more, is turning into the unstoppable player that we thought he might become. He's on track to be the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft and a possible Heisman contender in 2013. But it's more than him, although teams are having to play and plan so much for Clowney that it opens the door for others. Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton were two players who surfaced against the Bulldogs.

I was at Spurrier's introductory news conference in 2004. He said, "Why not us?" referencing some of the Boston Red Sox's mojo at that time. So this is where the school and Spurrier wanted to be back then, third in the country with the nation buzzing about the Gamecocks.

Here's the fundamental question: Can it stay? Can South Carolina play at that high of a level, or close to it, for three consecutive weeks, including the next two in two of the tougher -- if not the toughest -- venues in the SEC?

LSU will have a back-against-the-wall mentality, but its offensive line is kind of a mess. You've got to figure South Carolina will not drop off up front defensively, and it can make as many plays against Zach Mettenberger as Florida did Saturday.

South Carolina appears to be better than Florida in all areas, too. The Gamecocks would likely be favored against both teams on neutral fields, but the location is the variable that will swing the lines toward the home teams. But that would only add value to possible South Carolina wins.

A climbing program ascended Saturday, with chances to go higher in the next two weeks.

Here are some additional takeaways from Week 6 in college football:

1. FSU still can't win "the little ones"

Everyone proclaimed the Seminoles as "back" after the Clemson game, because they won the big game. But what about the little ones? As the website Tomahawk Nation pointed out, Jimbo Fisher's teams have now lost five games as double-digit favorites. One or two would be too many of those in such a short time frame.

The root of the latest debacle? Well, the Seminoles, with previously emergent Heisman candidate EJ Manuel, did not score a point in the second half against a defense that was giving up nearly 400 yards a game and surrendered a Miami school-record 566 passing yards last week.

FSU was 3-for-15 on third down. NC State wasn't much better (5-for-18), but it did convert three fourth downs on the final touchdown drive -- including the last-minute touchdown itself.

That's another thing. The vaunted Florida State defense couldn't get a stop, and it had just one sack of Mike Glennon, even though the Wolfpack were missing three offensive linemen.

FSU had a punt blocked in the final two-and-a-half minutes, a complete whiff from one of the up-backs. Let's be honest: It was the kind of choke we'd seen before from FSU (and seen before in Raleigh). It was 16-0 Noles at halftime.

Now the ACC office is kicking rocks because its one golden calf, its chance to attain national status, melted down.

Sure, the Seminoles still can and probably will win the league. But the Orange Bowl is quite the consolation prize compared to the big game in the same location.

2. Will Muschamp sprinkles magic dust on his team at halftime

Seriously, what gets into Florida in the second halves of big games? The Gators sort of scuffle around in the first halves, and then they morph into beasts in the third and fourth quarters.

Florida has given up two second-half touchdowns all season, including no points at Texas A&M and Saturday against LSU.

Matt Elam had the play of the game (year?) for the Gators, stripping the ball from LSU receiver Odell Beckham after he'd gotten open past blown coverage on miscommunication between Elam and the corner. It was the kind of hustle play that's typified what UF has done in its 5-0 start.

Veteran Mike Gillislee and the Florida offensive line took over the game, much as they had in the Texas A&M win. Gillislee became the first back to rush for more than 100 yards against the Tigers since the 2010 Cotton Bowl. The Gators ran the ball the final 25 plays of the game.

"That was typical 1980 SEC right there," Muschamp said, describing quite the departure from the way Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier had won at UF.

Some had suggested that Muschamp wasn't ready for this job. Wins like Saturday are games that certainly validate him and his staff. (How much of an upgrade is Brent Pease, by the way? UF should send a card to Kansas thanking it.)

So far, Muschamp has done a phenomenal job of managing the pieces he has. It's a talented team, no question, but it is far from where the program was five years ago on offense. At least right now. And then there are those adjustments. Is anyone doing more from the first half to the second? If another team is, I haven't seen it.

The Gators go to Vanderbilt next week before seeing the Gamecocks in, as I mentioned earlier, a de facto SEC East title game. That's the case regardless of what South Carolina does next week at LSU.

3. Texas cannot tackle, and that's a problem

When West Virginia started the game Saturday by continuing to score at breakneck pace, you knew it was going to be extremely difficult for Texas to match TD-for-TD for four quarters. It almost did, if not for a botched snap and a missed field goal late in the game.
The 48-45 score wasn't completely surprising, but what was a stunner was that the Mountaineers found a running game in Andrew Buie. The sophomore went from 25 carries for 82 yards last week against Baylor to 31 carries for 207 yards Saturday in Austin. Buie was averaging 56 yards a game coming in.

"We were going to try to force them to run the ball," UT defensive coordinator Manny Diaz told reporters. "We turned them into a running football team, and a lot of that was by design."

Oops.

The Longhorns all season have been dreadful at open-field tackling. On top of that, they're missing one of their best tacklers, middle linebacker Jordan Hicks. Facing West Virginia is not a game in which you want to be without your middle linebacker.

Texas is an extremely difficult team to read because it's playing better offense than most expected and far worse defense than anyone anticipated. It's having to win games in the Big 12, just like the rest of the league, by outscoring the opponent, and that doesn't bode well for a still-improving offense.

This week's Red River Rivalry game in Dallas is big for both teams. With the way West Virginia is going, the loser might very well be out of the Big 12 hunt. Two losses, and down the head-to-head tiebreak, would be awfully difficult from which to recover.

4. Some seats are warming, predictably

You know how this works: Change the coordinators, and if that doesn't work, change the head coach. That's where things are trending at Auburn unless Gene Chizik figures something out.

Keep a close eye on a couple of things if Chizik is really in trouble. A trip to Ole Miss next week is suddenly daunting, and a loss there might mean Auburn could finish seventh in the division. Second, and this goes with that, watch the commitment list for the Tigers. They still have a top-five recruiting class pledged, but if one or two back out and it causes a ripple effect, look out. On top of that, Chizik has landed top-tier classes before, and it isn't really working. The staff isn't doing much with the accumulated talent.

Would he already have been canned without Cam?

When will Richt's name pop back up? There's a world of talent on the roster (and in the state), and Richt can't keep the players out of trouble or get them playing at a high level in big games. Aaron Murray, who had appeared on some Heisman lists, has never beaten a top-10 team (0-7). What's Georgia's signature win from the past three years?

How about Bo Pelini? Nebraska gave up 63 points to Ohio State, and the school just hired a new athletic director this week. What's weird: The Huskers might still have the best shot to get to the Rose Bowl. It would be tough to fire a guy who got the school back in the BCS, wouldn't it? Still, the grumbling in Lincoln will be very audible this week.

After losing to previously winless Army, Boston College's Frank Spaziani has transcended the hot seat. There are some foregone conclusions, like the BC job and likely Kentucky.

"There's no place to go but up," Spaziani told reporters afterward. Mmm. Maybe not.

5. Kudos to Landry Jones, Sooners

Lubbock is a tough place to play. Oklahoma, of any team, knows. It hadn't won there since 2003 -- until Saturday. Locally and nationally, we've all been pretty rough on the struggles of fifth-year senior QB Landry Jones. So let's be sure to tip the cap to him when he plays well, and he was smart and efficient on the road in the team's 41-20 ripping of Texas Tech.

Jones threw to seven different receivers, including six times to first-year running back Damien Williams. The junior college product might be the key player to watch this week against Texas, given the Horns' aforementioned tackling issues. Williams had 20 touches for 130 yards.

Clobbering Texas Tech in Lubbock was never going to make Oklahoma's season. But it certainly could have broken it. Now the Sooners could be a slight favorite in this week's rivalry game against Texas. Kansas State is a borderline top-five team, so that loss isn't looking so bad -- especially considering OU outplayed the Wildcats much of the game only to give it away with absurdly bad turnovers.

We're not bettors, by any means, but if we were, we'd definitely go with a Bob Stoops-coached team after a loss. OU is 19-0 following a loss under Stoops.

6. What's up with the Hokies' D?

Even as recently as last week, I was still a believer in Virginia Tech's chances to play for the ACC title. All right, done with that.

A part of my thinking had to do with the ridiculously thin Coastal Division, currently led by 3-0 Miami -- which lost to K-State and Notre Dame by a combined 77 points -- and chased by Duke. Yes, Duke.

The stumbling block for Virginia Tech was supposedly its inexperienced offense, but its defense has really let it down in the team's three losses.

The Hokies allowed two touchdowns in each of the first three quarters -- a kick return, a pass and four rushing scores. They were gashed for 339 yards on the ground, including 262 by Gio Bernard. He averaged 11.4 yards a carry.

"We've got to get back down to basics," defensive coordinator Bud Foster told reporters. "That comes back on me. But we're going to get back right, though."

And later: "We've got to play well just to make a bowl game."

At least he's being realistic.

Talk about a game that got holes punched in it Saturday: FSU-Virginia Tech on Nov. 8 lost a lot of luster.

7. Notre Dame just keeps it up

Our Jason Sehorn and I were going back and forth Saturday night about Notre Dame and its wins so far. No, Michigan State and Michigan aren't exactly where we thought in August they would be.

But, as I told Jason, you're hard-pressed to find teams around the country that have played any good teams at all on a regular basis. So at least Michigan State, Michigan and Miami are "name" opponents from BCS leagues. And the Irish, because of that schedule we'd discussed all summer, have plenty more of those games littering their landscape -- even if some of the early-season strength of schedule has been diminished.

Stanford comes Saturday, with "College GameDay" returning to South Bend for the first time since the "Bush Push" game with USC back in 2005.

Trips to Oklahoma and USC remain, too.

The Irish's defense just keeps going. It hasn't allowed a TD in three games, since the Sept. 8 Purdue game.

The offense managed 587 total yards, 376 of them on the ground, against a fairly suspect Miami D. Still, it was something for the offense.

"We've still got a lot of work to do," running back Cierre Wood told reporters. "We had a great game today, but we're nowhere near where we want to be. We're nowhere near how good we can be. So people looking at us now, that's not really anything yet because we've still got a lot of work to do."

Even so, the Irish will either be in the top five or just outside it. Didn't see that coming before the year, did you?

8. Oregon State is a top-10 team -- for real

Attrition is kind of amazing in college football. When Nos. 3, 4 and 5 lose on the same day -- the first time that's happened since Oct. 11, 2008, ESPNU researchers tell me -- it opens the door for new blood.

And how about Oregon State, which has to be the surprise of the still-young season? The Beavers didn't blast Washington State on Saturday, but they got another win. (That's more than UCLA, previously considered the league's upstart, can say after a 43-17 loss to 1-4 Cal.)

Beavers coach Mike Riley said last week that the defense, picked apart by Arizona, needed to tighten up. Wazzu finished with 227 yards, including just 20 on the ground. Corner Jordan Poyer had three picks.

"Oregon State's defense was more physical than our offense," Cougars coach Mike Leach told reporters afterward.

One ugly number, though: OSU had 11 penalties for 110 yards. It also had three turnovers. That won't do against better teams, potentially including a physical BYU team this week.

9. Bill O'Brien for coach of the year

He's making a case, isn't he? A few more wins like Saturday, and O'Brien has to be considered -- with everything he and the team have dealt with. Northwestern has a pretty solid team, and Penn State scored 22 points in the fourth quarter to erase a two-score deficit. Twenty-two total was like a solid game for the Nittany Lions last season.

O'Brien has quarterback Matt McGloin (10 TDs, two INTs) and the offense believing in themselves. And that's with the 2011 leading rusher playing at USC and the 2011 leading receiver playing at Oklahoma.

It's incredible, how O'Brien's air of positivity has allowed the Lions to play loose, faster. Even in the losses to Ohio (the first bowl-eligible team in the country, by the way, before the Gamecocks joined the Bobcats) and Virginia, they played and performed better than last season. They're a kick away from being 5-1, not that 4-2 isn't impressive enough given the past 11 months in Happy Valley.

10. Where does the Big East rank as a conference?

I'm starting to think Louisville, Rutgers and Cincinnati are pretty good teams. With me? Not like SEC or Big 12 contender kind of teams, but ACC or Big Ten contender kind of teams.

Rutgers has won at Arkansas (which sort of means something, or it would have in August). Cincinnati won a neutral-site game against Virginia Tech (which sort of means something, or it would have in August).

As with Landry Jones, there's been a lot of dogging of the Big East. But it has three undefeated teams on Oct. 7. The ACC has none. The Big Ten has one, and it's postseason-ineligible Ohio State.