Sunday October 10th, 2010

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Steve Spurrier, who mused in 1996 that God had smiled on his Florida Gators, dipped into Greek mythology this week to prepare his South Carolina team for a date with top-ranked Alabama.

"Fellas, if Fate means for us to win this game Saturday, then let's give it a chance," Spurrier remembered telling the Gamecocks. "Let's give Fate a chance to happen."

Never mind the Greeks believed in multiple Fates. Spurrier was rolling. Besides, Fate had no hand in the call Spurrier made in the fourth quarter with his team up a touchdown and the ball resting on the Gamecocks' 37 -- less than three inches from the first-down mark. Instead of Fate, Spurrier listened to a voice from above. "Go for it," defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson drawled into his headset from his perch in the press box.

Spurrier agreed, and quarterback Stephen Garcia barreled through Alabama's line for two yards. "I thought that was a no-brainer," Johnson said later. "I know where the ball was on the field, but fourth-and-that much? If you can't make that, you don't deserve to win." The first down led to a touchdown, and a few minutes later, the Gamecocks stood in front of a roaring student section with their arms raised. For the rest of their days, when they tell people they played for South Carolina in 2010, someone will mention Alabama and a 35-21 win that might be the greatest in school history.

South Carolina deserved the victory. Alabama didn't give away the game. The Gamecocks flat-out pounded the Crimson Tide. A year after handing Alabama tailback Mark Ingram the Heisman Trophy by letting him trample the 'Cocks for 246 yards, South Carolina's defense held Ingram and fellow bruiser Trent Richardson to 64 yards on 17 carries. Meanwhile, South Carolina freshman Marcus Lattimore rushed for 93 yards and two touchdowns behind an offensive line eager to shed its shame from its role in a loss at Auburn two weeks ago.

"We played some ball today," Spurrier said. "We didn't have a bunch of fumble returns or a blocked punt. We didn't do any of that. We had to play ball today. We played to the end, and when we looked up, we'd beaten No. 1 by a couple of touchdowns."

But did South Carolina beat No. 1? In preparing his defense for the Crimson Tide, Johnson made a clear distinction between No. 1 in October and No. 1 in January. Alabama was No. 1 this past January, but this is a new season. "A lot of people are into perception," Johnson said. "We get all hyped up about things. ... We beat the No. 1 team in the polls today. We don't know they're No. 1. The season isn't over. Perception is reality. What's the perception, and what's the reality? When you come into games and you put somebody on a pedestal like that and you think you've got to play out of your skin to beat them, you make mistakes."

South Carolina made Alabama look quite mortal Saturday. Judging by his reaction after the loss, Tide coach Nick Saban has seen that mortality for some time on the practice field. Now, Saban faces a new challenge. He must teach his players how to handle a loss. Alabama hadn't lost since getting shelled by Utah in the Sugar Bowl to close the 2008 season. The Tide hadn't lost a regular-season game since dropping the Iron Bowl at Auburn in 2007. "Everybody has a lot to learn from this experience," Saban said. "We have guys on our team that haven't lost a game. If you're a great competitor, you don't like to lose."

One such defeat debutante is Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy, who got sacked seven times in the first game and suffered his first loss as a starter since eighth grade. McElroy said the right things after the defeat, but how he responds next week against Ole Miss will be more telling. "You have to look at the glass as half-full in this situation," McElroy said. "It's early in the season. We can still accomplish everything we want to accomplish."

Saban said something similar, but coach and quarterback might be overconfident about their conference's standing on the national stage. When Alabama lost Saturday, Auburn and LSU were the only SEC teams that still controlled their destiny.

The SEC has produced the past four national champions, but the conference isn't as deep as its fans want to believe. When choosing teams for the BCS title game, an undefeated Pac-10 or Big Ten champ is a no-brainer over a one-loss SEC champ. Nebraska or Oklahoma might emerge undefeated from the Big 12. Boise State should be undefeated, as well. Failing an undefeated offering from the SEC, the Broncos also would be more deserving. Ditto for TCU or Utah, if either emerges undefeated from the Mountain West.

A one-loss SEC champ getting passed over might help college football's slow march to a more sensible postseason. SEC commissioner Mike Slive is one of the most powerful men in the sport. He once proposed a four-team tournament to decide the national champion. If his conference gets shut out, here's guessing he brings back that idea sooner rather than later.

The choice of who plays in the title game will be made based on the perception of those who vote in the coaches' poll, those who vote in the Harris Interactive poll and a bunch of computer ranking algorithms. It's just as Johnson told his players. Alabama was No. 1 in two polls released on Oct. 3. Someone else will be No. 1 on Sunday. It'll probably be Ohio State or Oregon, and Boise State may also get a few votes. Who will be No. 1 in January? Could be one of the three. Could be Nebraska. Could be TCU. Could be Utah. Could be ... South Carolina?

If the Gamecocks can manhandle the Crimson Tide the way they did Saturday, they certainly can win the first SEC East title in school history. (They could just as easily lose at Kentucky next week; after all, this is a school that believes in the Chicken Curse. But let's not stop them. They're rolling.) That feat still seemed impossible when Spurrier arrived in 2005. It seemed possible Saturday. If the Gamecocks win the East, they could win a one-game playoff for the SEC title. Sprinkle in a little chaos, 2007-style, and the 12-1 Gamecocks could be playing for the crystal football.

OK, that's a bit of a stretch. But stranger things have happened. Who knows? Maybe it's Fate.

"I gave myself a game ball," Spurrier said, smiling that wicked smile that still makes Georgia and Tennessee fans shiver. "The players didn't even know about it. One of them said, 'Let's give Fate the game ball.' I said, 'I'm accepting for Fate.'"

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