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October 18, 2010

Looking at the League

Around 45 minutes or so after Kentucky had dumped South Carolina from the Top 10 on Saturday, legions of Gamecock fans milled in confusion around Commonwealth Stadium's parking lots, most wondering aloud the same question.

Did USC just blow it?

"It" was something USC has dreamed of since 1992 and never won, only getting within reach a couple of times. "It" is what Gamecock fans thought they had wrapped up, after the biggest win in program history just seven days prior.

An SEC East title, and the trip to the SEC championship game that goes with it. "It" took a hit with the loss to the Wildcats, but an hour after the final horn, or 15 minutes after the dazed wonderings in the parking lot, USC found new reason to cheer -- slightly.

Florida's Chas Henry missed the game-tying field goal wide right with only seconds to play, delivering Mississippi State a shocking 10-7 win. The loss left the Gamecocks with a 2-2 league record, which is the only .500 record in the East.

USC could have been up two games in the win column on Florida with four to play, and one win up on Georgia, plus the tiebreaker. That would have allowed them room to make a mistake further down the line and still go to Atlanta.

But nothing was lost without recovery. The Gamecocks control their own destiny.

"We're still in the hunt," coach Steve Spurrier said. "We may fall on our face, get beat again, but we're still in the hunt. Of course, we may not be."

Now to stay there. The solution is simple -- win.

"We have a bunch of SEC games here in a row and we got to win them," quarterback Stephen Garcia concurred.

USC travels to Vanderbilt on Saturday, then hosts Tennessee. The Gamecocks have four games to try and get where they want to be, while others in the division have more room to correct it and some have less.

A look at how it breaks down, going forward:

SEC EAST
South Carolina (2-2)
Florida (2-3)
Georgia (2-3)
Vanderbilt (1-2)
Kentucky (1-3)
Tennessee (0-3)

SOUTH CAROLINA travels to Vanderbilt, hosts Tennessee, hosts Arkansas, then travels to Florida. All come in a row. The biggest obstacle is overcoming USC's recent history on the road -- 0-7 in the last seven games -- and holding serve at home (11-1 in the last 12). The Gamecocks have much better talent than Vanderbilt and Tennessee and should win each of them, but then again, that was the mantra going into Kentucky. USC knows it probably will be without the services of tailback Marcus Lattimore for Vandy, but he could return for Tennessee. USC has to hope its defense finds some answers before pass-happy Arkansas comes to town, and also to hope that the home magic continues. Florida looks very vulnerable but the Gamecocks would probably want to avoid having to go to The Swamp to win the East. It may be unavoidable, but the Gators are not nearly as invincible as they used to be.

FLORIDA has lost three straight games, two at home, but has a week off to try and recover. After that comes a neutral date with Georgia at Jacksonville, Fla., a place where the Gators have recently been very strong, but Florida is not traditional this year and the Bulldogs have smashed their last two opponents. The Gators have to play at Vanderbilt and then host USC to end their conference season, which gives them a short window to try and overcome their three-loss deficit.

GEORGIA has blown out Tennessee and Vanderbilt, but it travels to Kentucky this week trying to cool off a program fresh off a huge upset. After that comes Florida, then a date at Auburn to end the SEC slate, so the Bulldogs could legitimately challenge for the crown. To have a realistic shot, though they will have to win out, and hope somebody else loses. For USC's sake, the Gamecocks have the tiebreaker over the Bulldogs, but that won't come into play unless the teams end up with identical records -- and nobody will care if they're tied for second place.

VANDERBILT beat Ole Miss for its lone conference win but was blown out by Georgia after two non-conference games. South Carolina native Robbie Caldwell welcomes the Gamecocks to his own barn on Saturday hoping to mimic Kentucky, and with a win and a Georgia loss, could be tied atop the SEC East.

KENTUCKY got a huge win but needs to keep getting them to have a chance. The Wildcats have a favorable road, but only if they can ride the hot streak. Georgia is next, followed by Mississippi State. Vanderbilt and Tennessee end the schedule, which is favorable, but UK will still have to get another team to lose to have a chance.

TENNESSEE is in the same boat as the other three-loss teams, holding onto three defeats but no wins. The Volunteers are coming off a bye week but have to play Alabama on Saturday, then face USC, Ole Miss, Vandy and Kentucky to finish. It would take a miracle of Biblical proportions for UT to have a shot.

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