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USC sees more opportunity after becoming bowl eligible

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Once upon a time, getting to six wins and attaining bowl eligibility was a big deal for the University of South Carolina football program.

As those versed in Gamecock football history can painfully recall, USC lost in its first eight bowl appearances before finally breaking through for a 24-21 CarQuest Bowl victory over West Virginia in 1995, Brad Scott's only bowl appearance in five seasons as Carolina's head coach.

Former coaches Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier made great strides in turning around that losing bowl legacy. Since that 0-8 start, the Gamecocks are 8-5, including an enviable 5-1 record in traditional New Year's Day bowl games.

Current USC head coach Will Muschamp seems to be ahead of schedule in what many saw as a major rebuild after inheriting a 3-9 team last season. Predictably, Muschamp did not make a big deal with his players about clinching their second consecutive bowl bid and the program's 12th in 13 years with a 34-27 victory over Vanderbilt on Saturday.

"No, we don't talk about that," Muschamp said matter-of-factly. "It's something we expect."

Muschamp and his players know that, with four games remaining, including Southeastern Conference games at No. 2 Georgia on Saturday and against Florida the next Saturday, there is still plenty more to play for. At 6-2 overall and 4-2 in the SEC, Gamecock wins in those two games and a loss by the Bulldogs at No. 16 Auburn or at home against Kentucky, along with a Kentucky loss to either Mississippi or Vanderbilt would give USC just its second SEC championship since joining the league in 1992.

A longshot? Yes. But to still have a shot at an SEC East title with two conference games to play is more than many had predicted for the Gamecocks in Muschamp's second season.

"We don't look at (playing Georgia) as an SEC East race. We just look at it as another game," said junior defensive back Steven Montac, who had the Gamecocks' lone interception of Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur. "You've got to come in focused, which I know we are. We will practice hard. It's just a regular game. You can't make it into something that is bigger than it is. We're just going to go out and play football."

Last year, a then true freshman Jake Bentley took over the quarterback reigns midseason, with USC struggling at 2-4 and holding dim hopes at earning a bowl bid. Four wins in the next five games, including a 24-21 win over then No. 18 Tennessee, turned the season around. There was excitement due to the unexpected nature of earning a bid, but the Gamecocks would not win again, closing the season at 6-7 after a 46-39 overtime Birmingham Bowl loss to South Florida.

Bentley, who rushed for two touchdowns and passed for a third against the Commodores, and A.J. Turner, who rushed for a career-high 121 yards and a touchdown, both said that a lot has changed since last year.

"The whole mindset of expecting to win," Bentley said of the difference in the team's mentality from a year ago. "I think we go into every game this year expecting to win, and the confidence level is a lot higher throughout our team. I don't want to downplay the importance of making a bowl game, that's important to us, but also we know that we have a lot more games to play and bigger goals to achieve as well. We just need to continue to move forward and (play) one-game seasons. The one-game season mentality is really a big difference."

Turner said the key has been following the lead of his head coach.

"Our culture has definitely changed. Coach Muschamp has done a great job of helping us to be able to do that," Turner said. "Just being able to play fast and physical. ... So, just listening to him I feel like it has definitely changed the way people think and we change the way we practice and we've changed a lot of big stuff, so I feel like it's all working out."

Though the Gamecocks seem to have the right mentality heading into Saturday's contest, Georgia will undoubtedly offer the Gamecocks their stiffest test of the season. The Bulldogs trounced Florida, 42-7, on Saturday, representing the Gators' most lopsided loss in the usual SEC East headliner since a 44-0 drubbing in 1982. Georgia has won its five SEC games by a combined score of 212-52, with the "closest" of those games coming in a 53-28 win over Missouri. The Bulldogs are 8-0 for the first time since 2002, a year they won the SEC and finished 13-1, defeating Florida State 26-13 in the Sugar Bowl.

Junior Zack Bailey, who made his return to the offensive line against Vanderbilt after missing the previous four games due to injury, probably best described what awaits the Gamecocks when they journey between the hedges on Saturday.

"It's (playing Georgia) the next-game-up mentality, and it's great that we are bowl eligible," Bailey said. "That doesn't mean that we can take this next game lightly. Just because we are bowl eligible does not mean we can take Georgia lightly. It's going to be a drag-out, and we will have to fight until the end."

For what it's worth, the Gamecocks seem to have the attention of Georgia head football coach Kirby Smart. When asked after his team's win over Florida about today's initial release of the college football playoff rankings, Smart's response was a simple one.

"I'm just worried about South Carolina."