It hadn't always been pretty, but South Carolina was 4-0 at the end of September and had defeated Georgia on the road, slayed the historical ghost of Navy and proven that Vanderbilt would not derail the 2011 season. From all appearances, it was a clear shot to an undefeated record going into November -- and South Carolina lost.
That was around a year, of course, since South Carolina had beaten No. 1 Alabama to become a leading contender for the SEC East -- and lost to Kentucky on the road the following week. So as South Carolina heads to Baton Rouge to take on a questionable LSU team after administering one of the most lopsided Gamecock wins in the century-long series against Georgia, the fair question is: How far can they go?
A close loss against LSU would not be catastrophic. The interdivision game would not change the must-win nature of the Florida and Tennessee games. The Arkansas game is also going to be significant. And if we're really talking about the Gamecocks being in the national conversation, and we are, then a single loss might not hurt if South Carolina can go through the rest of the schedule and then defeat the SEC West champion in Atlanta.
Still, how likely is a South Carolina run to the BCS Championship Game, really? Is any hesitance grounded in real circumstances, or is it more a sign that this is South Carolina and teams like South Carolina aren't "supposed" to be the in the title game. The answer to that isn't clear right now -- can't be clear right now -- but here are a few thoughts.
- The schedule is strong enough. Any team that has a stretch that goes Georgia-at LSU-at Florida is going to have a decent case to make that an undefeated or even one-loss season is reason enough to beat out any other undefeated or one-loss team for the right to play for the crystal football. Throw in a nonconference victory at Clemson and a win against Alabama (most likely) in the SEC Championship Game and the argument is almost a lock. If South Carolina can win, they'll be there.
- The defense is good enough. The Gamecocks are in the Top 20 in basically every major statistical category on defense -- the only exception being passing yardage, which you might expect when a team has won five of its games by at least three touchdowns. The defensive line is dominant, ranking fourth in the nation by averaging more than four sacks a game, and opponents' passing efficiency is paltry despite the fact that the Gamecocks' secondary is the weakness of its defense. If the line can continue to keep the pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the defensive backs don't have to do too much for South Carolina to win.
- The question is the offense. The Gamecocks are in the top half of the SEC in all the major offensive statistical categories -- but barely. South Carolina ranks seventh in rushing yardage, passing yardage and sacks allowed, sixth in total offense and fifth in scoring offense. The only place they lead the league is in passing efficiency -- and Connor Shaw doesn't actually qualify for ranking in that category individually because of the small number of passes he's thrown. If South Carolina gets into a shootout -- say, against Tennessee -- there's a legitimate question as to whether they'll be able to keep up.
So if the question is, is it possible to imagine a scenario where South Carolina might make it to the title game, the answer is yes. But there are plenty of reasons to wonder whether it can actually happen. The Gamecocks can start to knock those down by winning in Death Valley.