Columbia, S.C. - The final score was just 17-12 and South Carolina's offense gained less than 300 yards. Still, Saturday's win over Florida was the sweetest victory for coach Steve Spurrier since he took over the Gamecocks seven years ago.
No. 15 South Carolina (8-2, 6-2 Southeastern) finished its first sweep of the SEC East and won six conference games for the first time since coming into the league in 1992.
"When I took this job seven years ago, some of my buddies in Florida said, `Steve, you're crazy. You're going to get your butt beat like every other South Carolina coach. You can't beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. Why do you want to get into that?"' Spurrier said. "I said, `I believe South Carolina has a chance."'
The Gamecocks still have a chance to do a lot of special things. They will need help to make it to a second SEC title game. If Georgia loses to Auburn on Saturday or to Kentucky next week, then South Carolina is off to Atlanta. They also are just two wins away from only the second 10-win season in more than 100 years of football.
"I have a feeling some good things are going to happen to us. We'll just have to wait and see when the dust settles," Spurrier said.
Some players said Spurrier even had tears in his eyes in the locker room after his third win over his alma mater and the school he won a national title for.
The win completes a turnabout in the SEC East. Last time Florida came to South Carolina in 2009, the Gators were No. 1 in the country and finished an unbeaten league season for the fifth time, while the Gamecocks were wrapping up a 12th losing conference record in 18 years.
This year, Florida (5-5, 3-5) finishes with its first losing SEC record since 1986 and most SEC losses since going 0-6 in the league in Charley Pell's first year in 1979. But Gators coach Will Muschamp isn't ready to concede there is a new order in the SEC East.
"We have two good teams in our league -- and that's Alabama and LSU -- and the rest of us you can throw us in a sack and shake us up," he said.
The Gamecocks came in planning to pass, but quarterback Connor Shaw said they quickly discovered that Florida was daring them to run. So Shaw and freshman running back Brandon Wilds started pounding Florida. South Carolina had 160 yards rushing in the first half while jumping to a 14-3 lead.
"They came out in basically the same thing Tennessee did, just a big zone, and forced us to run the ball," Shaw said. "And I think we proved we can."
Florida shut down the running game in the second half, and climbed back into it. A 2-yard touchdown run by Jacoby Brissett made it 14-12 with 11:13 to go, but the Gators got only one more good chance. They drove into Gamecocks territory midway through the fourth quarter, but Melvin Ingram tackled quarterback John Brantley for a 6-yard loss on a run, then forced him to throw the ball away on 3rd-and-22, ending the threat.
The Gamecocks were expected to win this year. But they've done it in an unexpected way.
South Carolina entered the season with an all-SEC running back in Marcus Lattimore, who got hurt in the seventh game against Mississippi State. The Gamecocks had a three-year starter at quarterback in Stephen Garcia, but he was benched before being thrown off the team for breaking rules. And all-SEC receiver Alshon Jeffery has just 38 catches for 504 yards this year, although his two catches for 17 yards on Saturday were enough to let the junior pass Kenny McKinley for South Carolina's all-time record for receiving yards.
Count Ingram among those pleasantly surprised at his team's unprecedented success.
"I wouldn't believe that if we didn't have Marcus or Garcia here, but it's a big football team. If they're not here, there are other players behind them," Ingram said,
Shaw was 6 of 12 for 81 yards and an interception. Most of those yards came on a 47-yard fourth quarter pass to Ace Sanders that set up a 28-yard field goal that put the Gamecocks up 17-12.
Chris Rainey led Florida with 132 yards on 17 carries, and Brantley went 13 of 21 for 119 yards as the Gators gained just 261 yards on Saturday. They averaged just 299 yards in their eight SEC games under offensive coordinator and former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis.
"I see a lot of improvement regardless of the results," Muschamp said. "Everybody wants results and I do too. It's about winning and I understand that. In the big picture of things, we've made tremendous improvement."
In the other locker room, Spurrier said he handed out game balls to just about everyone because he was so giddy with this victory.
"It's one of the best I've ever had, not because it's my old school,' Spurrier said. "But because it is six wins in the conference and beating those schools that have dominated South Carolina."
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)