South Carolina players began the season talking about playing all four quarters and finishing games stronger than they have in the past.
The Gamecocks want to close out seasons stronger, too.
As it has for four of Steve Spurrier's five seasons, USC again reached the midseason point with a winning record. The Gamecocks will take a 5-1 record and No. 22 ranking to Tuscaloosa, Ala., this weekend to face No. 2 Alabama - the next test on a schedule that is heavily back-loaded.
After the Crimson Tide, USC comes home to face Vanderbilt, has road games against two improved teams in Tennessee and Arkansas and closes against No. 1 Florida and Clemson at Williams-Brice Stadium.
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Despite the fast start that included an upset of No. 4 Mississippi, Steve Spurrier has kept expectations reasonable for his young team, never mentioning an SEC championship as a goal.
"We've said we don't think this is the best team we're ever going to field here," Spurrier said this week. "Overall, we've got a good team, but we're not a dominant-type team. Until you have a bunch of fourth- and fifth-year players, you're really not."
The State looks at the first half of the Gamecocks' season, including a couple of the young players who have come of age.
As the final seconds ticked off of USC's 16-10 win against the Rebels, quarterback Stephen Garcia led a charge to the student section that was 28 years in the making. Though Ole Miss would be exposed as a top-5 pretender, it was an emotional night at Williams-Brice as fans and players celebrated the Gamecocks' first win against a top-5 team since 1981.
In a wild, high-scoring game that broke the trend of a Georgia-USC series dominated by defense, the Bulldogs made the one defensive stop they needed. Rennie Curran deflected Garcia's fourth-down pass from the 7-yard line with 22 seconds to go, preserving Georgia's 41-37 victory. Garcia threw for 313 yards on 53 pass attempts, tied for the second most in school history.
Garcia has done everything asked of him. He has stayed in the pocket, gone through his reads and avoided the interceptions that crippled the Gamecocks last season. His third-down leap for a first down against Kentucky reminded teammates how much winning means to him.
Defensive end Cliff Matthews and safeties Darian Stewart and Chris Culliver all have played well. But linebacker Eric Norwood fills up the stat sheet every week. The Gamecocks' all-time sacks leader is first on the team in sacks, interceptions, quarterback hurries and blocked kicks.
Leading by 1 in the fourth quarter against Kentucky, USC forced the Wildcats to punt near midfield. Ryan Tydlacka's 5-yard shank took a fortuitous bounce for the Gamecocks, who used the good field possession to start what proved to be the decisive touchdown drive.
If the NCAA kept track of such dubious statistics, USC receiver Tori Gurley likely would be in the record books after he had four touchdown receptions called back due to penalties in the first four games.
BEST DEBUT (DEFENSE)
In the starting lineup only because of Clifton Geathers' suspension, defensive end Devin Taylor had a night to remember at N.C. State. Taylor forced a fumble on the Wolfpack's first offensive play and blocked a punt on State's next possession. The redshirt freshman finished with six tackles, three for loss.
BEST DEBUT (OFFENSE)
Not since Sidney Rice has a USC receiver had a game like Alshon Jeffery enjoyed last week against Kentucky. Facing the Wildcats' second-team cornerbacks, Jeffery caught seven passes for 138 yards and three touchdowns, including a one-handed grab that will endure on YouTube.
Rodney Paulk is not loud or flashy. All the middle linebacker does is make tackles, which is what he was doing when he tore the ACL in his right knee in the opener at N.C. State. Paulk, redshirted in 2008 with a knee injury, was leading USC with six tackles when he went down in the second quarter. Paulk plans to seek a sixth season of eligibility from the NCAA.
BIGGEST IMPACT BY A NEWCOMER (OFFENSE)
Right guard T.J. Johnson is the only offensive lineman to start every game. The redshirt freshman from Aynor will have his hands full this week against Terrence Cody, aka Mount Cody, Alabama's 6-foot-5, 354-pound nose guard.
BIGGEST IMPACT BY A NEWCOMER (DEFENSE)
Before he played a down, Spurrier said freshman cornerback Stephon Gilmore might be the best player to come out of USC. Gilmore, who saved the win at N.C. State with a pass breakup in the end zone, has started every game and is seldom out of position.
OUTLOOK FOR THE SECOND HALF
Several young players have stepped up to fill voids on a defense that has had its share of injuries and suspensions. It will be interesting to see how the youngsters hold up down the stretch as the schedule toughens. The Gamecocks missed the run-stopping abilities of Paulk and defensive tackle Travian Robertson, who also sustained a season-ending knee injury, against S.C. State and Kentucky. Alabama figures to pound USC between the tackles, as well.
Offensively, Spurrier seems ready to scrap the tailback-by-committee approach and give more carries to Kenny Miles, who had his first 100-yard rushing game against Kentucky. After his big game last week Jeffery likely will have to prove he can get off press coverage, while tight end Weslye Saunders is too big and talented to stay in hibernation. If Garcia continues to make plays and limit his mistakes, he should give USC a chance to win every week.
Prediction: 8-4 and a berth in the Chick-fil-A Bowl