With South Carolina's dominating, if not spectacular, 17-6 win over Georgia last week, the Gamecocks football team did a couple of things for its fans and its impartial observers. How the two mesh will be the telling feature for the team moving forward this season.
First for the fans: excitement. Marcus Lattimore emerged as a legitimate SEC running back, but he will never again be looked at as an afterthought, not to say that's how Georgia viewed him. However, to hear a few Bulldogs tell it, they said it wasn't Lattimore's ability to run as much as their own inability to tackle that made the difference. Whatever. Regardless of what you believe, Lattimore is now the go to guy for the Gamecocks AND their opponents.
Another huge reason for excitement is actually an old and familiar one: the Gamecocks defense. Ellis Johnson and company employed another successful scheme on Georgia's offense, limiting the Dogs' running attack to 61 net yards while holding Aaron Murray (who's very good, BTW) in check throughout the day. Murray hit some big plays and surely missed AJ Green, but in the end the Bulldogs could only muster two field goals on Carolina. Each team had a key turnover that killed big drives, so that stat evens out.
Stephen Garcia had a solid game, the fumble in the second half being his biggest mistake. However, he threw no interceptions, kept the offense focused and made some big plays here and there that kept the Gamecocks on the field. When you have a guy like Lattimore tearing it up, asking your QB to "manage the game" is OK. Garcia did his job and further solidified his role as the number one QB on the team.
Now for the rest of the country: expectations. With the emergence of Lattimore and the win over UGa, Carolina rocketed up the national polls, claiming the 13th spot in the AP and 16th spot in the USA Today Coaches Poll. Too high? Maybe, but to borrow from Steve Spurrier "it is what it is."
A game with Furman this week provides no real chance to impress voters in a positive sense, but the game at Auburn next week certainly does. That said, the Gamecocks' program has had a penchant for playing down to its competition in recent years. I get the feeling that the intensity levels have been ratcheted up this year, so we'll see on Saturday how that turns out.
Since Carolina is expected to win over a SoCon foe, this week won't tell us much, provided things go accordingly. However, after the Paladins visit Columbia, the Gamecocks play seven straight in the SEC. What happens in the first two of those seven will tell us a lot. Wins over Auburn and Alabama will likely put Carolina in the Top 5. A split will still legitimize the team this season, while two losses may have some saying the club can't handle it's lofty status. There will still be plenty of football after the Bama game, but no one is measured by games against Kentucky and Vanderbilt - unless you lose or win by blowout.
As I've said often this year, Carolina's ability to stay focused game by game is the single most important factor in its success. Through the first two games they've done that very well. Serve notice against Furman, then be ready to prove to the nation what you're really capable of.
This South Carolina team is good and can get a lot better. It's how they carry their new burden that I'll be most interested in watching.