Connor Shaw has seen this scenario play out for Georgia over the last two seasons. Now South Carolina's quarterback hopes his team can follow the Bulldogs' example.
Shaw's Gamecocks defeated Georgia in each of the last two seasons, only to see the Bulldogs go undefeated afterward and claim the SEC East title in both years despite head-to-head losses to South Carolina. So despite seeing his team's winning streak over Georgia end with last weekend's 41-30 loss in Athens, Shaw has seen first-hand that a good team with a manageable schedule is not out of it even after a loss in that key division showdown.
“It's frustrating, but the past two years we've beat them and they've gone on to play in Atlanta, so that's the mindset we have to have going forward,” Shaw said.
No. 13 South Carolina (1-1, 0-1 SEC) can still be the team that represents the East in the SEC championship game, but the Georgia loss means the Gamecocks likely don't have room for error against remaining conference opponents like Vanderbilt (1-1, 0-1), which visits Columbia on Saturday night.
Out of preseason Eastern Division favorites Georgia, South Carolina and Florida, it is the Gamecocks who enjoy the most reasonable conference schedule, with cross-divisional games against Arkansas and Mississippi State, while the Bulldogs must face LSU and Auburn and the Gators play LSU and Arkansas.
Georgia used such fortuitous scheduling -- missing Western Division powers Alabama, Arkansas and LSU in 2011 and facing Auburn and Ole Miss from the West last season -- to its advantage over the last two seasons and South Carolina hopes it can do the same. But beating a team like onetime SEC doormat Vanderbilt is the first task.
The Commodores have made big strides under Coach James Franklin, winning nine games last season for the first time since 1915 and finishing the season ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 1948. One thing they haven't done in Franklin's two-plus seasons is knock off one of the East's three top teams. Franklin's teams have made Georgia, Florida and South Carolina sweat over the previous two seasons, but are 0-6 against them so far.
While he wouldn't admit it publicly at his weekly press conference on Monday, Franklin knows that Vanderbilt cannot consider itself as an equal to the division titans until it beats one of them.
“I think we've had some pretty dramatic [success] and some statement wins, program wins,” Franklin said. “Is it enough for the fans, is it enough for the media, is it enough for me and our players? No, we want more. But I'm not getting caught up in those things that other people find important.
“I'm very, very comfortable with the direction of the program, where we're going, how we're doing it, and that's really my focus. Nothing more than that.”
Vanderbilt gave South Carolina all it could handle last season before the Gamecocks rallied for a 17-13 win in Nashville. It was something of a coming-out party for Commodores receiver Jordan Matthews, who posted 147 yards and a touchdown en route to a 1,262-yard season.
He could enjoy similar opportunities against a South Carolina defense that showed unexpected vulnerability in surrendering 536 yards to Georgia last weekend.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier vowed earlier this week that changes were coming for the Gamecocks, although “I can't spill all the beans and tell you what we're going to try to do, but I will say we're going to try to be fundamentally sound. If we do that, we have a chance. If we don't, then we have no chance.”
For his part, Spurrier was not interested in buying into Shaw's line of logic. After voicing his disgust with the way the Gamecocks performed against Georgia, Spurrier said perhaps it would be smarter for his team to focus on smaller goals before worrying about making it to Atlanta in December.
“We're not a very good team right now,” Spurrier said. “We'd better work hard and get our stuff together or we don't have to worry about any kind of division or SEC championship. We're worried about going to a bowl game right now. That's what we need to worry about, winning seven games, eight games if we can. That's what we need to do, but we need to try to beat Vandy this week. That's what we need to worry about.
“We can let all the talk go to those other guys right now. When we have zero conference wins and the way we performed [against Georgia], it doesn't look real pretty for us unless we change our ways around here.”