Gamecocks 'give fate a chance'
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- After watching his South Carolina football team fumble away a big lead in a 35-27 loss at Auburn two weeks ago, Steve Spurrier asked his players to put their faith in something that has never been very kind to the Gamecocks.
"Let's give fate a chance," Spurrier told his team, during a meeting a couple of days after the Gamecocks squandered a 20-7 lead against the Tigers.
"If fate is going to smile on South Carolina, then we have to give it a chance. Who knows? If you give fate a chance, something big may happen."
In front of a sold-out crowd of 92,993 fans, the No. 19 Gamecocks stunned No. 1 Alabama 35-21 on Saturday, ending the Crimson Tide's winning streaks of 29 consecutive regular-season games and 18 straight SEC contests.
"It was nice to beat the No. 1 team, there's no question about that," Spurrier said. "It has to be one of the best days for our university ever, I would have to guess."
For more than a century, fate has often stricken the Gamecocks in the worst ways. After all, there's only one conference championship commemorated on the walls of Williams-Brice Stadium -- the 1969 ACC title.
In more than 100 years of playing football, South Carolina has won only four bowl games and it has never played in a lucrative BCS bowl game in the modern era. For much of the past two decades, the Gamecocks have been also-rans in the SEC East, chasing programs like Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.
Finally, fate shined on the Gamecocks on Saturday, just like it used to shine on Spurrier's pass-happy teams at Florida, where he led his alma mater to six SEC titles and the 1996 national championship.
It was the third time South Carolina defeated a No. 1-ranked team in a men's sport this year. The Gamecocks' basketball team upset No. 1 Kentucky, and their baseball team defeated No. 1 Arizona State in the College World Series on the way to winning the school's first national title in any men's sport.
"I think that this game was meant to be," Spurrier said. "I used a line this week that I've never used in my life. Since our basketball team had beat No. 1 and our baseball team had done it, I said, 'Fellas, if fate means for us to win this game Saturday then let's give it a chance.'"
And beating the Crimson Tide in front of a packed house and national TV audience meant so much more for South Carolina's starved fans.
"It was an unbelievable feeling," South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia said. "I'm not really sure how to describe the feeling right now, but it's unbelievable."
During the last six seasons, Spurrier has tried to make the Gamecocks relevant in the SEC East. He surprised nearly everyone by coming out of retirement to take over a mediocre South Carolina program in 2005 and didn't win more than eight games in each of his first five seasons.
After the loss at Auburn, the Gamecocks again seemed to be in danger of falling back into mediocrity. Garcia fumbled twice in the second half at Auburn and was benched in the fourth quarter. Freshman Connor Shaw threw two interceptions late in the game, and Spurrier was questioned for shuffling his quarterbacks once again.
"We had a big pow-wow talk and said if we were going to have a big year, we couldn't play like we did at Auburn," Spurrier said.
The Gamecocks played like they were the best team on the field against Alabama. Garcia looked like the best quarterback on the field, better than Alabama's Greg McElroy, who had never lost as a starting QB in high school or college.
South Carolina freshman Marcus Lattimore looked like the most dangerous runner on the field, even better than Alabama's two-headed monster of reigning Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. Gamecocks receiver Alshon Jeffery made big play after big play, outshining Alabama All-America candidate Julio Jones.
Spurrier even looked like the best coach on the sideline again. He kept Alabama's defense guessing, and the Gamecocks were able to hold the Crimson Tide to only 36 rushing yards on 29 carries.
"I think our guys got together and said, 'Let's give it a little more effort and see what happens," Spurrier said. "That was our rallying cry."
The Gamecocks stunned Alabama early and often. After the Crimson Tide kicked a field goal to take a 3-0 lead on its first possession, South Carolina scored three consecutive touchdowns to make the score 21-3.
Garcia, who has been maligned throughout his three-year career, was a perfect 9-for-9 passing for 94 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. The Gamecocks had a 21-9 lead at the half.
"I guess it couldn't have come at a better time, playing against the No. 1 team," said Garcia, who finished with 201 passing yards, three touchdowns and one interception on 17-for-20 passing. "Coach Spurrier said, 'Let's give fate a chance,' and we did."
But in the opening minutes of the second half, it looked like fate would rear its ugly head again. On the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter, center T.J. Johnson snapped the ball over Garcia's head. Garcia picked up the fumble at South Carolina's 4-yard line. Instead of falling down or scrambling to escape, Garcia threw the football through the back of his team's end zone for a safety.
Alabama got the ball back and kicked a 39-yard field goal to cut South Carolina's lead to 21-14 with 9:37 to play.
"They said it was my first incompletion of the game," Garcia said. "Oh, well."
Instead of collapsing like they've done so many times in the past, the Gamecocks stood tall.
"We played some ball today," Spurrier said. "We didn't get a bunch of fumble returns or blocked punts. We didn't do any of that stuff. We had to play ball today, we played until the end and looked up and had beaten No. 1 by a couple of touchdowns."
With its victory, South Carolina becomes a major player in the SEC East race with key remaining games against No. 11 Arkansas on Nov. 6 and at No. 14 Florida on Nov. 13.
The Crimson Tide, who played in each of the last two SEC championship games, now find themselves in a dogfight in the SEC West. Alabama was playing its third straight difficult game, after coming from behind to win at Arkansas 24-20 on Sept. 25 and blowing out Florida 31-6 at home last week.
"It hurts a lot," McElroy said. "It's not a good feeling. There are a lot of guys on this team who have never experienced a loss."
During South Carolina's postgame celebration in its locker room, one of Spurrier's players suggested the team award a game ball to fate.
"I'll accept it for fate," Spurrier told his team.
Indeed, fate finally shined on the Gamecocks and now almost anything seems possible.
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. He co-authored Bobby Bowden's memoir, "Called To Coach," which was published by Simon & Schuster. The book is available in stores and can be ordered here. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.