College Sports

Time to step up, Gamecocks

COLUMBIA -- The time is now, South Carolina, to begin thinking like a champion.

Yeah, I know it's only midway through the season, and the six opponents you've got left feature two teams in the Top 25 and the defending SEC West champion. You may say it's a bit premature to start thinking about such things like conference championships, considering the program has won one league title in 114 years.

But I say, look at what's going on. Your coach, Gamecocks, said this is the year you could reasonably expect to challenge for a conference championship. And with a stirring 38-23 win over the No. 8 team in the country Thursday and you guys set to rise into the Top 10 Sunday, I say, why not now?

No matter how bad you might have looked at times doing it Thursday, you guys beat the No. 8 team in the country. Was Kentucky the eighth-best team in the country? Probably not.

But you still won, and for the first time in 20 years, you beat a team ranked eighth or higher.

"We helped the season out a lot," said defensive end Eric Norwood, the driving force behind the win. "It was a challenge, and I think we stepped up to it."

Yeah, you did. So strut your stuff this weekend -- some of you already said you'd be basking in the praise of your former high school fans Friday when you got a rare day off. Just report back to Columbia on Sunday and be ready to work.

Because now is not the time to rest on your laurels. All you've got to do is look back through the history of your program to find out why.

• 1984 -- A 9-0 start and No. 2 national ranking fizzles out in a shocking loss to Navy. The Gamecocks still won 10 games but all they had to show for it was a rivalry win over Clemson.

• 1988 -- A 6-0 start turns into a 2-4 finish, with a loss in the Liberty Bowl. To Indiana.

• 2000 -- The team broke a 21-game losing streak and shot to a 7-1 start. That was followed by three straight losses, although the Gamecocks rebounded to win the Outback Bowl.

Not to say a nine- or 10-win season or a mid-level bowl win wouldn't be great for this year's team. It would be.

I'm just saying your goals need to be higher, Gamecocks.

There is no reason you guys should not be 7-1 in two weeks after a match at North Carolina and a home game vs. Vanderbilt. Don't overlook those guys, but don't for a minute think they can beat you.

Becoming a champion starts with confidence, although Steve Spurrier was quick to point out he didn't want too much confidence.

Yet.

"We're just still in it," Spurrier said. "If we'd have lost, we'd have not been in it very well. We're just still in it, that's all."

You're actually more than in it, guys. You're no worse than tied for first place in the SEC East, halfway through the conference slate. You hold the tiebreakers over Georgia and Kentucky and with every team in the division holding one conference loss, you have as much chance as anybody else to run the table.

No, it won't be easy. After the Tar Heels and Vandy comes a date at Tennessee, where USC's only won once in 13 tries.

Then Arkansas, of the power running game; Florida, defending conference and national champ; and nemesis Clemson, aching to prove it's better than that shanked field goal last year.

But the fact remains -- you guys are in position, great position. You can be the first to do something truly monumental in this program, which, around Columbia, would guarantee all of you free lunch for life.

"I know this team's got a lot of confidence," quarterback Chris Smelley said. "We still control ourselves for the rest of the year. We plan on keeping the roll going."

Good. Make sure everybody else feels the same way.

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