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South Carolina flaunts contender status by shellacking rival Georgia

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It took seven years to build. At times, during losses in the Independence or PapaJohns.com Bowl, it seemed the day never would come. The game had passed him by. He'd lost his touch with quarterbacks. He, like nearly every coach here before him, would be resigned to mediocrity.

But in 2012, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has created a juggernaut that 1996 Florida coach Steve Spurrier would appreciate. Saturday night against No. 5 Georgia, Williams-Brice Stadium rocked as loudly as the Swamp would for a matchup of Top 10 opponents. Spurrier's masterful quarterback, Connor Shaw, would have kept even the old Ball Coach from tossing his visor. Spurrier's fast receivers ran past helpless Bulldogs defensive backs, and his freakish defensive end, Jadeveon Clowney, filled the role once held by Jevon Kearse.

With a 35-7 rout of the more heavily touted Bulldogs, the Gamecocks showed they're fully capable of delivering the 67-year-old Spurrier his second national championship. At tradition-deprived South Carolina -- which Saturday produced the first 10-game winning streak in school history -- that's no small feat.

"We definitely sent a message out to the country," said Gamecocks star Marcus Lattimore. "This is definitely not the old South Carolina. We can play with y'all."

The game was widely billed as the biggest in school history, the first meeting in Columbia between two top-10 foes. The traffic on George Rogers Blvd. was at a standstill hours before kickoff, and a stadium-record 85,199 screamed and swayed feverishly enough to shake the press box.

"It was a special day for us," said Spurrier, who figured Williams-Brice was "probably the loudest [stadium] in the country today."

"Our fans had paid their dues, and they need something in return," he said. "Hopefully they are getting something in return now that we're able to win at home and win some big games against good teams."

Georgia is a good team, particularly on offense. Or at least it was in its first five games. The Dawgs came in averaging an SEC-best 536 yards per game, including an SEC-best 6.2 yards per rushing attempt. Quarterback Aaron Murray was the nation's third-rated passer.

Behind a dominant performance from Clowney and the rest of the front four, the Gamecocks held the Dawgs to just 224 total yards Saturday. Prior to a garbage-time 75-yard touchdown drive, Georgia managed less than two yards per carry, and Murray completed just 11-of-31 passes for 109 yards on the night.

"We feel we can control [the game]," linebacker DeVonte Holloman said of his defense. "They don't score, they don't win. I wouldn't call it arrogance, but we just trust what each other do."

But South Carolina's defensive dominance is not an overnight revelation. Spurrier's program quietly produced the nation's third-ranked unit a year ago. The spark that's helped the Gamecocks take the leap from SEC East contender to national title contender is Shaw.

Since taking over for the oft-troubled and finally dismissed Stephen Garcia in the middle of last season, Shaw has gone 13-1 as South Carolina's starter. Known at first primarily for his running ability, Shaw's ever-increasing accuracy is letting Spurrier re-open up his offense.

Shaw tested Georgia deep from the second play, a 42-yard completion to Damiere Byrd, and then threw a 20-yard touchdown to a wide-open Bruce Ellington. The Gamecocks' second touchdown came when Shaw patiently waited a beat, then hit Rory Anderson just as he broke free on a crossing route for a 14-yard score. The first quarter had not yet ended when Ace Sanders broke a 70-yard punt return to make it 21-0.

The Gamecocks' offense came back to earth after that, though Shaw -- who also rushed for 78 yards on 14 attempts -- did add a 62-yard pass to set up South Carolina's fourth touchdown. Given Shaw's impact, it stunned even Spurrier to look at the final box score and see his quarterback wound up attempting just 10 passes (six of them completions, for 162 yards).

"Connor sets the whole tone for the team by the way he plays, the way he runs," said Lattimore, who broke 100 yards (109 on 24 carries) for the third straight year against Georgia. "Everyone wants to give their all when they see the way he plays."

Spurrier used his postgame news conference to get in the usual set of jabs at his old rival, against whom he's now 15-5 as a head coach. "Beating three years in a row a school that used to own you -- they can't say they own us anymore, that's for sure," said Spurrier. He took delight in notching his 250th overall career victory against the school that "used to beat my alma mater [Florida] very well" and, while attempting to compliment Georgia's offense, couldn't help noting "they didn't move the ball very far when they were out there."

But the night meant far more for Spurrier's program than just beating a rival. It wasn't an earth-shattering upset like the Gamecocks' upset of top-ranked Alabama here two years ago, but that South Carolina team already had a loss and was just trying to achieve its first once-distant milestone in winning the East.

Following a day in which NC State stunned No. 3 Florida State while Florida humbled fourth-ranked LSU, the Gamecocks will themselves move into the top three Sunday, which makes them a certifiable national-title contender. Not bad for a program that averaged seven wins during Spurrier's first five seasons and capped 2009 with a PapaJohns.com Bowl loss to UConn.

South Carolina has upgraded its facilities since then, but it's not like the Ball Coach made wholesale changes.

"We started recruiting better," he said flatly, and it's true. South Carolina's rise began when elite in-state players like Lattimore and Clowney chose to stay home.

Meanwhile, for the Bulldogs, Saturday's nightmare brought back memories of another high-profile debacle, Sept. 27, 2008, when Alabama came to Athens and went up 31-0 on third-ranked Georgia en route to a 41-30 rout. That game served as a national coming out for Nick Saban's program, which won the first of two BCS titles the following season. Spurrier's program has endured a more gradual rise, but could soon enjoy a similar payoff.

Of course, those visions of grandeur could be iced as soon as next week. The Gamecocks' reward for Saturday's feat is consecutive road trips to LSU and Florida. The Tigers' offense is a mess, but the game's in Death Valley. The Gators, meanwhile, are already 4-0 in the SEC.

"Our goal is to see if we can match that emotional level and getting ready as we get through the rest of the season," said Spurrier, who was quick to remind reporters his team trailed Kentucky 17-7 at halftime a week earlier. "One thing we'll have to guard against is everyone telling us how great we are, which, when you win convincingly, that's what happens."

Saturday, the Gamecocks nearly shut out the most explosive offense they'll face this season. Their quarterback is completing 76 percent of his passes, and their tailback is a future first-rounder. This team has all the pieces.

Even the Ball Coach had to concede, "If we play like this we may have a chance for a real big year. Maybe."

It's a super time to be a South Carolina fan. As Spurrier said, they've paid their dues. In return, he's built them their first BCS title contender.

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