Josh Kendall

To prove they are real SEC East contenders, USC must beat Kentucky

South Carolina has taken two steps forward. It can’t take one step back Saturday against Kentucky.

The Wildcats have been an unexpected thorn in the Gamecocks’ side of late, beating USC in each of the past three seasons. South Carolina has beaten every other team in the SEC East at least once in that span, but what have become annual losses to Kentucky have kept it from having any chance of returning to the top half of the division.

If the Gamecocks want to return to division contention, they first must beat the Cats, and that chance comes Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Williams-Brice Stadium.

South Carolina has earned upset victories over N.C. State and Missouri in its first two games of the season, and behind the scenes, this team is confident it will be a factor in the SEC East race this season, which would be way ahead of the schedule of anyone outside the program.

The Wildcats have deflated garnet and black balloons before, though. Even going back before the three-game winning streak, Kentucky has had an odd power to torpedo South Carolina seasons.

Everyone remembers the upstart 2010 Gamecocks team that toppled No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 9 of that season. South Carolina fans remember that seven days later that team lost to a Kentucky team that would finish the season 2-6 in the SEC. From 2011-2013, South Carolina was 3-0 against Kentucky and had a combined record of 33-6. From 2014-2016, the Gamecocks were 0-3 against the Wildcats and had a combined record of 16-22.

Which brings us to Saturday. All of this goodwill the Gamecocks have earned, and they have earned it, will be gone with another loss to Kentucky. There is no reasonable way to salvage pride out of a home loss to a team that is coming off two games in which it struggled to beat Southern Miss and Eastern Kentucky.

“There’s no doubt that people want to see results,” coach Will Muschamp said. “They want to see you making progress, and in our first two games they see a tremendous amount of progress from year one to year two and from week one to week two, and they want to continue to see it.”

That progress will be erased with a loss to the Wildcats. That’s why Saturday is a big deal.