NOT LONG AFTER South Carolina dusted off Kentucky and could turn its full attention to the showdown against Georgia at Williams-Brice Stadium, a Columbia sports talk radio personality declared Saturday’s game as the biggest in program history.
Don’t get me wrong, it is a big game. Huge, in fact.
But isn’t it time to accept that USC has arrived as an annual challenger for the SEC East championship, and as a result, nearly every conference game these days is big? Isn’t it time to accept that with national rankings every year come games against other nationally ranked teams?
It is sort of like when Marcus Lattimore finds the end zone. He acts as if he has been there before — a program-record 38 times, to be sure — and simply tosses the ball to the nearest official.
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USC’s fan base can now treat these games the same way because the Gamecocks have been here before, at least numerous times in the previous two seasons.
In case those who are declaring Saturday’s game as “the biggest ever” have forgotten, USC defeated No. 1-ranked Alabama at home in 2010. That same season, the Gamecocks defeated Florida in a winner-take-all game for the SEC East championship. Then there was the SEC Championship game against Auburn.
A season ago, games against Georgia and Auburn helped determine the SEC East champion, and USC’s game at Arkansas pitted a pair of top-10 teams with the Razorbacks at No. 8 and the Gamecocks at No. 10.
Heck, Saturday marks the fifth time USC has played a game in which both teams were ranked in the top 10. That was the case in the 1984 and 1987 Gator Bowl losses to Oklahoma State and LSU, respectively, in a 1987 regular-season loss to Miami, and in the loss a season ago against Arkansas.
Steve Spurrier and Georgia’s Mark Richt can put perspective on such a game because their teams frequently have been in these kinds of games over their coaching careers.
In his 12 seasons at Georgia, Richt’s teams have played in four SEC Championship games, winning two. His teams have played seven games in which both teams were ranked in the top 10, with Georgia winning three times.
Spurrier’s Florida teams played in seven SEC Championship games, winning five. His teams at Florida played in 33 games where both teams were ranked in the top 10. They won 16 of those and tied once. Remarkably, Florida and Florida State were both ranked in the top 10 in 13 consecutive meetings between 1990 and 2000.
That is why it is cemented in Spurrier’s head that no one game is bigger than the next. They all count as one win or one loss in the standings. It is an approach that he has sold to his players, who have come to expect playing in big games.
“That’s one of the reasons they came here is because they realize, hey, South Carolina gets into these types of games,” Spurrier said of the top recruits he has landed. “I can play for my home state university and still experience real big-time college football. So this is what we look forward to. The more you win, the bigger they get. So, we’re hoping they get bigger.”
It was obvious through the week that Richt and Spurrier have conveyed the same message to their respective players. Yes, it is a big game, but it is not necessarily the biggest game on the schedule.
USC quarterback Connor Shaw might as well have been speaking for both teams when he said: “You can’t let the game get bigger than it is. It’s another SEC conference game, and that’s how we treat it.
“We know it’s a big game, and I’m from Georgia. We have a lot of guys from Georgia. But we just can’t treat it more than it is. It’s just a game.”
Besides, next week’s game at LSU might be bigger. The following week’s game at Florida might be bigger than that. Home games against Tennessee and Arkansas could determine whether USC wins the SEC East.
So, let ESPN GameDay — which, by the way, has been here five times previously to promote big games — hype the heck out of the game. If it so desires, let ESPN declare it as the biggest game in USC history.
Like the team they follow, USC fans know better. They’ve been here before — and likely will be again.