Replacing Marcus Lattimore's yards will be daunting enough for South Carolina. There aren’t many running backs like him.
But as the Gamecocks attempt to lock down a second straight trip to the SEC championship game, there’s going to come a time when the sobering reality hits that No. 21 is no longer on the field with them.
Simply, this is not the same team emotionally without Lattimore. For all of his success on the field, recapturing that edge without him the rest of the way will be South Carolina’s stiffest challenge.
The Gamecocks played the final two offensive possessions without him two weeks ago in grinding out a 14-12 win over Mississippi State on the road. He injured his knee with about nine minutes remaining and was helped to the sideline.
His teammates had a feeling it was pretty bad at the time, but still managed to finish out the game-winning drive with a touchdown.
Now, we find out if the Gamecocks have enough resolve to finish out what could be another memorable season for them, and it starts Saturday night on the road against Tennessee.
A trip to Arkansas follows the next week, and then it’s back home to face Florida.
Even with Lattimore, that would have been a challenging stretch, especially now that it looks like Florida quarterback John Brantley is back.
Without Lattimore, it becomes downright treacherous.
It’s noteworthy that Lattimore is making this trip. Earlier, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier had said that it would be too difficult for him to travel with his crutches and all.
“He indicated he wanted to be with his teammates and in the team meetings,” Spurrier said. “So he’ll be with us, and I’m sure he’ll be a super teammate on the sideline.”
Obviously, a lot of focus will be on Lattimore’s replacement. True freshman Brandon Wilds will step in as the Gamecocks’ starting running back, and Spurrier said Tuesday that Kenny Miles (wrist) and Eric Baker (ankle) may also be available to play this weekend after missing time with injuries.
But if South Carolina’s going to get through these next three games and win the East, it goes a lot deeper than simply who’s stepping in at running back.
Everybody will need to raise his level of play, including sophomore quarterback Connor Shaw and an offensive line that has had its ups and downs.
Defensively, the Gamecocks have to continue to keep the score down and take the pressure off of the offense, but that’s exactly what they’ve done for the last four games. Nobody has scored more than 16 points on them since the 24-21 win over Navy on Sept. 17.
Spurrier admitted that there was a natural tendency to keep calling Lattimore’s number earlier in the season when things weren’t flowing as well offensively.
He was always a threat, and defenses had to respect him.
Now, Spurrier probably has to give Shaw even more freedom, while mixing in Bruce Ellington as the Wildcat quarterback.
"You call plays according to the score and how the game is going," he said. "That’s what I’ve been doing. If the game is pretty tight, we’ve been trying to run Marcus and make some things happen. There wasn’t much happening in the one we lost or the one against Mississippi State, either. You try to get a feel of what your team can do, what the score is and then go from there."
Even without Lattimore, Spurrier likes the leadership on this team, and he said everybody understands what's at stake these next three weeks.
"You want to just concentrate on the game," Spurrier said. "That’s mainly all we talk about. We know where we are. We can’t afford to lose this one if we want to win the East. We have to bring our best game to Tennessee."