CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Is it more important to win or to look good doing it?
Such is the question after watching South Carolina again struggle to put away a lesser opponent Saturday.
The Gamecocks beat North Carolina 21-15, clinching their sixth win and, barring a complete collapse, a trip to a bowl game. The way they did it was anything but comforting, but they did it.
"It is what it is, and we won the game, and we're happy and I'm happy," coach Steve Spurrier said. "I didn't want to lose up here, and I'm happy for the Dukies and the South Carolina people."
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Spurrier slipped in that slight jibe for the Tar Heels' benefit, reminding them he's a former Duke coach and 4-0 lifetime against UNC lifetime, including 3-0 at Kenan Stadium. All he had to look at was the game stats -- 62 yards in the second half, 1-of-12 on third-down conversions, allowing UNC to have a chance at the tying touchdown when the game seemed to be well over at halftime -- and his smile dimmed.
But not too much.
"Yeah, but we won the game," he said. "We won somehow, we held on."
The situation wasn't unfamiliar. Ever since Spurrier took over at USC in 2005, his program has been defined by one characteristic.
The Gamecocks play to their competition.
When they play Florida or Tennessee or Clemson, that's not bad. They'll hang with the toughest opponents on the schedule and sometimes beat them.
But when those UCFs and Woffords and Louisiana-Lafayettes and now, the North Carolinas, pop up, they still do it. They look good in spurts -- that third touchdown just before the half against the Heels might turn out to the be the score that saved the season -- but can't put them away.
"I never thought North Carolina was a bad team," linebacker Cody Wells said. "They're a good team."
True, but not as good as USC supposedly was.
"North Carolina showed a lot of heart in the second half," said safety Emanuel Cook. "More heart than we did."
So ... the Gamecocks don't have heart?
"We just got to keep it mentally," said defensive end Eric Norwood. "Mentally, we weren't on top of the game."
You see the problem? There's all kinds of explanations, but none of them really explain it.
To those of us who have watched USC every game this season, it's obvious the Gamecocks are not a Top 10 team. They are a Top 25 team, but the reason they rose to No. 6 this week is because of Associated Press poll voters looking at the record and not the performance.
Still, the Gamecocks are a good team. They can be a great team, with or without these kind of games.
Winning comfortably would ease the minds of the Gamecocks' faithful, which is a nice objective. Nice, but not necessary, considering USC's long-suffering fan base has searched for a consistent winner for 114 years and still hasn't found it.
And winning close isn't bad. Florida won by one (twice), six, seven (twice) and 10 last year, and ended up national champion.
The Gamecocks beat the Tar Heels and are 6-1, 3-1 in the SEC with five games to go. The situation sets up well.
USC leads the SEC East and if it were eyeing the West, hoping LSU would lose so they could perhaps have an easier potential match in the SEC championship, mission accomplished. Vanderbilt comes to Columbia this week for what should be an easy matchup, until we think of USC's flubs against the Heels and the Commodores falling to Georgia on a last-second field goal the same night.
So do the Gamecocks keep hoping the chips fall on their side for the rest of the year, and a quarter or half of excellent play overcomes a quarter or half of wretched play?
Or do they man up, take charge and finish what they've started?
"We're going to finish every game," Norwood said confidently.
I think I heard that last week, too.