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Fear of Heights

It was a bit embarrassing, or at least I thought so, when The State took up two thirds of its sports page Monday to hail the No. 7 Gamecocks.

The reason was something along the lines of "act like you've been there before." Granted, the Gamecocks have rarely been "there" -- that is, in the Top 10 -- before, but they have been there. Most notably, of course, under the Man in Black.

Just don't ask him about Navy.

But I also have an uneasiness with the Gamecocks being ranked as highly as they are, and it's not just the possibility of being overranked, which I have referred to from time to time this year.

It's also the fact that, as South Carolina fans, we're used to getting beaten down every time something positive happens.

My experience with this has been relatively short, at least when compared with the long-suffering Gamecock fans. I began rooting for South Carolina in 1998, my freshman year at the university. Until then, I had been an Auburn fan, the only one rooting for the Tigers in a family full of Alabama faithful. (It's one of those weird things that happens in Alabama.)

But a 1-21 induction in my two years of pulling for South Carolina served as a baptism by fire. Watching the games was almost undoable -- on the rare occasions when the games were on television, the team was unwatchable. And I struggled with the concept of getting tickets and going to personally watch a team that was going to get defeated.

The second and (mercifully) last season of that ignomious streak came 15 years after the season that is perhaps Gamecock history distilled down to its simplest elements: In 1984, Joe Morrison led South Carolina to a No. 2 ranking and a 9-0 record. Beat unimpressive Navy and Clemson, and the Gamecocks would go into bowl season with a shot at the national championship. Instead, they lost 38-21 at Navy and ended up falling to Oklahoma State in the Gator Bowl for a 10-2 record.

Then came the magical start in 2000. All the bad memories seem to wash away as the Gamecocks started 4-0 and traveled to unranked Alabama. One of The State's columnist felt emboldened enough to muse that perhaps the Crimson Tide should be kicked out of the SEC. Alabama promptly won 27-17.

Three more wins, and the No. 17 Gamecocks welcomed the unranked Tennessee Volunteers to Williams Brice. Moments away from pulling out the win, South Carolina allowed Tennessee to get a last-minute score and win, 17-14. The Gamecocks also dropped their next two games, at Florida and at Clemson, to fall from the rankings temporarily until they defeated Ohio State in the Outback Bowl.

Ryan Brewer: Our hero.

With that season under their belt, the Gamecocks again set South Carolina fans to dreaming with a 5-0 start. All that stood between the Gamecocks and a 7-0 record to start the Orange Crush was a down Arkansas team and Vanderbilt. Of course, the Gamecocks promptly lost at Arkansas to begin a 3-3 denouement to the regular season. (Of course, another Outback Bowl victory over Ohio State followed.)

Then came 2002 and 2003. In the former, the Gamecocks jumped out to a 5-2 record, sparking dreams of a third straight bowl berth. But the team went 0-5 down the stretch, losing at LSU, against Tennessee, against Arkansas, at Florida and at Clemson. In 2003, South Carolina went 5-3 in the first eight games before finishing 5-7.

That is what South Carolina fans are used to -- or at least what my experience has been. And yet we stand at 5-1, ranked at No. 7, on top of the SEC East. What unfortunate surprise is around the corner? Losing to North Carolina? (For all Butch Davis has done, it would be an upset if the Tarheels won.) Vanderbilt the next week? Or will the Gamecocks hold serve until the usual collapse against the Orange Crush?

Maybe this time will be different. Maybe the Gamecocks can be 7-1 going to Knoxville, maybe they can win the games they have to in order to end up in Atlanta.

But color me nervous. At least until South Carolina finds a silver lining without a black cloud behind it.