- Associated Press - Thursday, October 14, 2010

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Even Steve Spurrier wondered if he had anything left to give South Carolina the way his last three seasons finished up.

Now he’s back on top in the Southeastern Conference.

Spurrier has his best chance at another SEC championship after defeating previously top-ranked Alabama 35-21 and with traditional Eastern powers like Florida, Georgia and Tennessee struggling.

“We’re in pretty good shape right now,” Spurrier said this week, “played Auburn, Alabama, and Georgia and (to) win two out of three of those is pretty good for us. So we’re not complaining.”

Spurrier and the Gamecocks play at Kentucky on Saturday.

It hasn’t always been easy _ even for Spurrier _ to see his program’s progress.

Spurrier ruled the sport during 12 seasons at Florida with six SEC titles and the 1996 national championship. The victories didn’t pile up as quickly at South Carolina and questions about Spurrier’s ability to win began.

“Anytime you hire a coach of coach Spurrier’s caliber, the expectations go up,” Gamecocks defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said. “He hadn’t won as much as he’d like to win his first five years here. They’ll be naysayers.”

Count Spurrier among them.

South Carolina’s last trip to the top 10 came in 2007 and Spurrier flashed that ol’ championship sparkle and wit during a 6-1 start and No. 6 ranking. The Gamecocks, though, crashed landed with a five-game losing streak to close the season.

Disappointing defeats to Iowa in the Outback Bowl and Connecticut in the Papajohns.com Bowl the past two years added to Spurrier’s frustration. He changed assistants, shuffled play-calling duties and briefly considered if it was best to walk away.

That’s changed this year.

Spurrier landed the marquee tailback he always featured at Florida in Marcus Lattimore. Rising star Alshon Jeffery has headed a group of rangy, tall and smart receivers. Even quarterback Stephen Garcia, the SEC’s offensive player of the week for his 17 of 20, three TD passing performance against Alabama, is fifth in the country in pass efficiency.

On defense, South Carolina have shown a toughness against the run that’s made it nearly impossible for team’s to score. Georgia managed only 61 yards on the ground and was held without a TD for the first time in three seasons. Last week, the Gamecocks took away Alabama’s power base as it held Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson to 64 yards and no touchdowns combined in between them.

It was South Carolina’s first-ever win over a No. 1 team.

Those who wondered about the 65-year-old Spurrier’s relevance just weren’t paying attention, said Lou Holtz.

“I picked South Carolina to win the SEC East, not because I coached there but because of what Steve Spurrier and his staff had worked to build,” said Holtz, ESPN college football analyst and Spurrier’s predecessor with the Gamecocks.

Coach Joker Phillips was a Kentucky assistant from 1990 to 1996 when Spurrier’s Gators dominated the Wildcats, including victories of 73-7 in 1994 and 65-0. Phillips remembers how Florida used its wide-open, “Fun-n-Gun” to stretch the field and open space for tailbacks.

At South Carolina, Spurrier is “just doing it different this year,” Phillips said. “They’re running to set up the pass. They used to pass to set up the run.”

The next few weeks set up well for the Gamecocks and may provide Spurrier his clearest path to the SEC title game since his Florida days.

South Carolina and Vanderbilt are the East’s only one-loss teams. The Gamecocks next three games come against divisional foes Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee who are a combined 1-7 in league play. If Florida, 2-2 in the SEC, can’t get its offense on track soon, South Carolina might have the East wrapped up before traveling to The Swamp on Nov. 13.

Don’t ask Spurrier to project. He won’t do it.

“No, no, no, no,” Spurrier said. “We haven’t won enough to be considered anything yet.”

Garcia, the fourth-year junior, says the players have taken their cues of patience and focus from their coach. Garcia is amazed at Spurrier’s complex schemes that always seem to end up with an open receiver or a lane to run through. As for the critics?

“I think the only way to silence anybody is doing what our goals are and that’s to play in the SEC championship and win the SEC championship,” Garcia said.

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AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Lexington, Ky., contributed to this report.