There are certain things that the Gamecocks just do not do. Historically do not do. This isn't to say that those things can't ever be done; it is to say "believe it when you see it."
One thing the Gamecocks do not do is beat the eventual national champion on its home field. And while the "eventual national champion" tag for LSU was not yet official, it was widely assumed by the fourth week of the season that the Bayou Bengals had an excellent shot at playing for their second BCS crown in five seasons when January rolled around.
Into this atmosphere walked the Gamecocks. Who do not win these games. It's a historical fact, you see.
Of course, South Carolina lost. Respectably -- 28-16 was certainly not disastrous -- but a loss is a loss. There was reason to believe, though, that a silver lining had emerged. And his name was Smelley.
Not only to Smelley play better and move the ball better than Blake, it seemed, at least to my eyes, that Spurrier was allowing Smelley to use a bit more of the offense than Blake. That indicates he has more confidence in Smelley than in Mitchell.
For some, the LSU loss was enough to say Spurrier was in decline -- an idea I strongly disagreed with, and still do.
But there was a creeping sensation that, four games into the season, we still had no idea how good or bad this team was. Was it really a Top 15 team? Based on a nail-biter over Georgia and a not-killing at the hands of LSU? Based on Spurrier's goal of an SEC title? Based on ... what else, exactly, other than the established college football powers dropping like flies?
There was little time to ponder these questions. Mississippi State was coming to the WB. Maybe we would finally get some answers to the questions.
Alas, the questions were not answered. The 38-21 win, in come from behind fashion, was far from inspiring. After all, some stupid blogger sneered at the time:
it's Mississippi State. Not to dog the "other" 'Dogs, but a bowl berth is the likely best-case scenario for them. The big game is Thursday. That said, the Gamecocks avoided a letdown from the LSU loss and didn't overlook State with the Wildcats looming.
There were some encouraging signs, though. The Gamecocks held the Bulldogs to 142 yards rushing, 23.8 yards below their average. Perhaps the run could be contained by Nix and Co. Perhaps.
The week was short, though. Thursday would bring the Kentucky. And, we could rest assured, answers.
What answers the week brought. Finally, a team we knew was pretty good -- was Kentucky not also highly ranked? -- in a prime-time tilt. Andre Woodson and a decent running game would test the defense; South Carolina and Kentucky would battle for front-runner status in the SEC East. In short, one of the upstarts would finally embed itself in the national consciousness as a team that was not just good, but great.
And for once, the Gamecocks came through, handling the Wildcats, 38-23. Well, at least, handling the ball -- which is more than could be said for Kentucky.
Andre Woodson threw his second interception in as many games -- which is a big deal when the first one snapped a record-long stretch without a pick -- and the Wildcats coughed up five fumbles, three of which were picked up by South Carolina. One of those recovered by Kentucky stopped what would have been an almost certain touchdown run on 3rd-and-goal.
There were some comments here and there, observations that "Several Kentucky players, namely Andre Woodson, could have been nominated for MVP honors in the South Carolina win."
The secret to the Gamecocks' success against Kentucky?
By and large, though, optimism reigned.
South Carolina was No. 7 in the AP poll, three spots ahead of that "other" USC. Blogs from fellow SEC teams were also noticing -- the Gamecocks were now ranked third, behind only LSU and Florida, in the SEC Power Poll.
They were, after all, 5-1. After certain wins at North Carolina and at home against Vanderbilt, South Carolina would be 7-1 and headed to Rocky Top with a chance to down the shaky Vols, who were about to cost Phil Fulmer his job.
Didn't we have all the evidence we needed that this team was special? Two quality SEC teams had fallen to the Gamecocks. The seemingly untouchable LSU Tigers, the team of destiny, had managed only a 12-point win. And South Carolina now controlled the SEC East.
So why was there still a feeling that something wasn't quite right?
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 ... It's also the fact that, as South Carolina fans, we're used to getting beaten down every time something positive happens.
Why should this season be any different?
After all, didn't getting this high just mean the fall would hurt more?
No, this season was different.
This season, the Gamecocks would break through.
Then came a moment in Chapel Hill that would define South Carolina's season.
And not for the better.