COLUMBIA -- After South Carolina beat North Carolina last month for its sixth win, Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier joked that it was the first time in school history that players did not go to Five Points to celebrate becoming bowl-eligible.
It turns out USC might have been smart to hold off on the celebration: Being bowl-eligible does not necessarily guarantee a bowl berth in this year's SEC.
As many as 11 of the conference's 12 schools could reach the minimum six wins needed to go bowling. But because the SEC only has eight bowl tie-ins, a couple of eligible teams could be left home for the holidays.
SEC officials have begun contacting bowls that might have at-large spots in the event the SEC has a surplus of eligible teams. But the parity that has turned the top 10 upside down nearly every week this season also means there are a lot of teams across the country hovering around .500.
"I think the conference is monitoring what's going on in the bowl landscape, not only with our conference but with other conferences," SEC spokesman Charles Bloom said Monday. "I think what we're finding is there are a lot of conferences that are in the same boat that we are in."
Heading into the final four weeks of the season, there are 48 schools already bowl-eligible and 27 other five-win teams vying for 64 bowl spots. Under NCAA rules, bowls are required to take a seven-win team before a six-win candidate when selecting from schools outside its conference affiliation.
It all makes for a crowded bowl picture.
"There's not going to be a whole lot of open slots after the host conferences are placed in their bowls," Bloom said.
The SEC currently has nine bowl-eligible teams, the same number the conference had in 2000, 2001 and 2006. The conference was able to accommodate all nine teams in 2000 and '06, although a 7-4 Mississippi team was left out in '01.
Vanderbilt and Mississippi State, both 5-4 with three games remaining, could join the bowl-eligible ranks with another win. Mississippi is the only SEC team that has been eliminated from bowl consideration.
Spurrier does not believe 11 SEC teams will be eligible.
"If there are 11, you tap me on the shoulder and say there's 11 that won six. I don't think there will be," Spurrier said. "But we need to get to seven (wins) and hopefully eight. We'll just have to wait and see."
Even nine bowl-eligible teams would be one too many for the SEC's slots, unless the conference gets two team in BCS bowls - a scenario that becomes more likely if LSU maintains its No. 2 ranking and plays in the BCS championship game.
Conference and bowl officials believe USC (6-4, 3-4 SEC) can assure itself a berth by winning one of its final two games against No. 17 Florida and No. 20 Clemson.
"If we go and win this weekend, it sort of settles things down," USC athletics director Eric Hyman said. "But if you don't, things are still up in the air a little bit."
Things would get murkier should the Gamecocks lose the final two games and finish the regular season on a five-game losing streak with a 6-6 record. Bowl officials generally favor teams that have momentum and accompanying fan interest at the end of the season.
But Hyman believes USC's history of bringing fans to bowls will benefit the Gamecocks if there is a surplus of eligible SEC teams.
USC sold 12,718 tickets for the Liberty Bowl last season and 8,103 the year before for the Independence, although school officials say there were a significant number of fans who bought seats at the gate or through the bowls both years.
"Our travel record I think can stand up to just about anybody's," Hyman said. "That's not everything, but I'm sure that's a factor -- a pretty substantial factor."
• When: 7:45 p.m. Saturday
• Where: Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia
• TV: ESPN (cable channel 25 in Rock Hill)
• Tickets: Sold out