Spurrier, Gamecocks take their shot

The directness and brutal honesty of Steve Spurrier is what makes him so refreshing.

Most coaches would rather undergo a root canal than to say what’s really on their mind in a public forum.

Not Spurrier, whose only filter is when he grows tired of talking about something.

It should come as no surprise then that Spurrier has been as blunt as blunt can be this week when talking to his South Carolina football team about Saturday’s SEC championship play-in game at Florida.

The winner locks up the Eastern Division crown and goes to Atlanta on Dec. 4 to play for the SEC championship.

Needless to say, these aren’t familiar waters for the Gamecocks.

“We’re going on the big stage, fellas,” Spurrier told his players. “If you’re a little nervous about it and scared, we’re all in trouble.”

It’s difficult to say it any more succinctly than that.

This is where South Carolina expected to be when the season began.

Players talked openly about making history and doing something that’s never been done.

Remember Alshon Jeffery’s “If people are sleeping on us, they better be ready” comment prior to the season?

Well, here they are … on the brink of finally breaking through in the East.

“When we recruited all these players to South Carolina, we talked about getting to this game and getting to the SEC championship game,” Spurrier said. “We’ll find out how we perform.”

While this is where South Carolina expected to be, this is where Florida has perennially been. Of course, that goes all the way back to the 1990s when Spurrier was busy winning six SEC championships at Florida.

But this hasn’t been a Florida-esque season. The Gators have had to scratch and claw to get to this point, revamping their offense along the way and overcoming their first three-game losing streak in the regular season since 1988.

There’s also no debating that the Eastern Division is down. This will be the first time since divisional play began in 1992 that a three-loss team has represented the East in the SEC championship game.

All that’s a footnote, though, as far as both of these teams are concerned, particularly South Carolina.

This is rare air for the Gamecocks, who’ve typically watched the East race unfold from the cheap seats.

South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia said earlier this week that Saturday’s game was the biggest in the history of the program.

That proclamation didn’t sit well with Spurrier, who wants his team to relax and play and not go into this game as if it’s football Armageddon.

“Please don’t listen to Stephen when he talks all the time,” said Spurrier, clearly miffed. “He’s speaking sometimes for Stephen. South Carolina was in this game in 2000. It was a big game. Alabama was a big win for us. South Carolina has had a lot of big games in school history.

“Unfortunately, we probably haven’t won many of those big games. So we’re trying to do something different there.”

Spurrier said there’s no magic formula for winning those big games, something he did often at Florida.

“We realize we have to play well, play smart, take care of the ball and all those things,” he said. “We’re going to try and not beat ourselves and try to make Florida earn everything.”

The reality is that South Carolina hasn’t been the same since halftime of the Kentucky game. The Gamecocks, fresh off their big upset of Alabama a week earlier, led 28-10 and appeared to be on their way to an easy win on the road.

But they unraveled in the second half, losing 31-28 to the Wildcats. It’s been up and down for South Carolina ever since. The Gamecocks have looked good in stretches and have struggled in stretches. Last week, they were hammered 41-20 at home by Arkansas.

“We’ve had some good moments, but we’ve struggled against the pass,” Spurrier said. “We’ve struggled on third down. I don’t think I’ve ever coached a team that’s leading the conference on third-down offense and at the bottom on defense. That’s sort of unusual, but that’s the way it’s been this year. Our guys have played really well on first and second downs. But when that other team converts those third-and-10s and third-and-13s, it does demoralize you a little bit. You’ve got to get them off the field. We’ve not done that well at all the last three or four games.

“We’ve had a lot of mental assignments we’ve busted. We’ve got to play sound football. That’s just where we are right now. Our pass defense is not very good right now, but we have sacks and have been pretty good on run defense.

“We just have to go play well.”