It would be easy to take away whatever you want to about South Carolina's game Thursday night against Southern Miss. All it took was keeping up with Twitter to tell that the game was a Rorschach test. Some saw it as a sign that the Gamecocks finally had an offense; other thought it indicated that the Golden Eagles had very few things, and one of them certainly wasn't a defense; and of course, you always have those who want to split the difference.
If you wanted a reason for the optimism from Gamecocks fans, it boils down to this: South Carolina generally does not play like this against anyone -- anyone -- whether BCS teams, midmajors or FCS opponents. The last time the Gamecocks won a game by 28 points or more was the 2008 season opener against N.C. State, a game that might have gone down in history as the worst season-opening win for any SEC team were it not for the following year's showdown with the Wolfpack. South Carolina defeated five teams by at least four touchdowns during Steve Spurrier's first five seasons; two were Sun Belt teams and another was from the FCS.
The underlying stats were also encouraging. The Gamecocks rushed for 224 yards, the second-highest total in the Spurrier Era. (The highest was last year's 287 yards against Florida Atlantic.) This is a team that has totaled less than 100 rushing yards in 14 games over the last two years. And the starting quarterback that had drawn so much criticism from his head coach?
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Anticipated freshman RB Marcus Lattimore also had a solid debut, rushing for 54 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries and chipping in 21 yards on a pair of receptions. And it was possible to believe Spurrier's contention that the recent quarterback crisis in Columbia had more to do with the talent of Connor Shaw than the lack thereof on the part of Garcia; Shaw was 4-of-5 for 32 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 31 yards on seven carries.
That said, the skeptics also have their points. This was, after all, against an opponent that finished just outside the bottom third in the nation is total defense in 2009 and was 109th against the pass last season. Some of the expectations for Southern Miss this year were based on the idea that the added experienced would lead to a better defense. Judging by Thursday night's result, that is most assuredly not the case.
And the Gamecocks' much-vaunted defense had its own problems. It shut down the Eagles' ground game, allowing just 67 yards on 27 carries. But Southern Miss has 337 yards in the air as part of its 404-yard total -- though a good portion of that passing yardage, to be fair, came in garbage time. Whether this was a function of deeper problems or the absence of cornerback Chris Culliver isn't clear, and might be a moot point given the uncertainty surrounding Culliver right now. And while the most significant number might be 1:33 -- the amount of time left on the clock when Southern Miss scored its first and only touchdown -- "bend but don't break" doesn't look to be a successful formula for a team that faces Alabama, Arkansas and Auburn as its SEC West foes this year.
Gamecocks fans have never had trouble believing that the current year was going to be the one that saw Spurrier finally lead the team to unprecedented heights. But Thursday night gave them something that they haven't had in a long time: A reason to believe in the season. That won't the SEC East for you, but it's a start.