From somebody who grew up in South Carolina, I come before you today to set the record straight.
I was wrong. Dead wrong.
It is possible to play an SEC championship game with the Gamecocks as a participant.
I’m not going to be disingenuous, though.
There was a time when I thought I had a better chance of seeing Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman and the Loch Ness Monster all in the same year than I did of seeing South Carolina in the SEC championship game.
But then along came Steve Spurrier (and one of those years where nobody else in the Eastern Division was able to manage a winning league record).
There’s no question that the stars lined up just right for the Gamecocks this season.
Florida decided it was going to run the Tim Tebow offense even though Tebow was no longer around, and the Gators went belly-up offensively.
Georgia star receiver A.J. Green got himself suspended for the first four games for selling one of his jerseys, and the Bulldogs started 0-3 in the SEC.
Tennessee entered the season with its third head coach in as many years and a roster that included 21 first-year players on the two deep.
Kentucky and Vanderbilt were, well … Kentucky and Vanderbilt, even though the Wildcats rallied from 18 points down at the half to beat the Gamecocks in October. The only problem was that they managed just one more SEC win the rest of the way.
And speaking of stars, don’t underestimate the importance of Spurrier and his staff bringing in the top high school stars from around the state the last few years.
That hasn’t always been the case at South Carolina.
But to have gone out and landed homegrown talent like Marcus Lattimore, Alshon Jeffery, Stephon Gilmore amd DeVonte Holloman -- all guys who could have gone anywhere in the country -- was the difference in going 9-3 as opposed to 7-5.
You win with great players, and you win with players who are difference-makers.
Until this season, South Carolina had never had a 1,000-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver in the same season. Well, Lattimore leads all SEC running backs with an average of 101.3 rushing yards per game,and Jeffery leads all SEC receivers with an average of 112.6 receiving yards per game.
Between them, they’ve scored 27 touchdowns.
They also have a head coach who came to South Carolina for a reason.
This was Spurrier’s kind of challenge. When he decided to get back into college football, he wanted to go someplace where they’d never done it before.
He won six SEC championships and a national championship at Florida.
The only championship South Carolina had ever won in football was the 1969 ACC championship.
Yep (as the Head Ball Coach would say), South Carolina was the perfect place.
It wasn’t a perfect start. The Gamecocks lost five or more games in each of his first five seasons. There were embarrassing bowl losses to Iowa and Connecticut the last two seasons. Spurrier admitted that he thought about walking away after the 31-10 debacle against Iowa in the Outback Bowl two years ago.
But he was encouraged by the young talent the Gamecocks were bringing in, and he felt like slowly, but surely, the mindset of the program was changing for the better.
Spurrier said this offseason was the best one the Gamecocks have had on his watch. And even though he never said it publicly, he’d been around this conference long enough to know that the Eastern Division crown was ripe for the taking.
And that’s what the Gamecocks did. They went out and took it -- beating Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee all in the same season.
How many South Carolina fans thought they’d ever see that happen?
Either way, here the Gamecocks are, poised to play in the biggest football game in school history.
Just getting here is an accomplishment onto itself when you consider this is only the third time in school history that the Gamecocks have ever won nine or more games in a season.
Of course, anybody that really knows Spurrier knows, in his world, second place might as well be eighth place.
There won’t be a lot of people picking the Gamecocks on Saturday, just like there weren’t a lot of people picking them to ever seriously challenge for the SEC title.
Spurrier said Sunday the reality is that they had “done OK” on his watch.
Judging by the standard he set at Florida, he’s probably right.
But win or lose Saturday, he’s already cemented his spot on the Mount Rushmore of SEC head football coaches.