Scott Hood, GamecockCentral.com
CBS broadcasters Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson were in the TV booth at Williams-Brice Stadium on Oct. 9 when South Carolina stunned then No. 1 Alabama, 35-21, ending the Crimson Tide's extended stay atop the national polls with a nearly flawless performance.
Based on that game, they shouldn't have been surprised when the Gamecocks reached the SEC Championship Game, which is set for a 4 p.m. kickoff on Saturday afternoon.
Lundquist (play-by-play) and Danielson (color analyst) will describe the action for CBS with Tracy Wolfson serving as sideline reporter.
"This South Carolina team is just about what I thought," Danielson said Tuesday during a teleconference with reporters previewing the USC-Auburn matchup. "From the beginning of the year to the end of the year, South Carolina has improved as much as any team in the country. This Auburn team is going to be facing South Carolina at their best. They've gotten better in all areas. They don't make as many mistakes on defense and on offense."
Danielson points to redshirt junior Stephen Garcia, the third quarterback in school history to top 6,000 career passing yards, as a indication of how far the Gamecock football program has grown over the past couple of years.
"I picked him as the breakout player of the year," said Danielson, who drew a parallel between Garcia and Brian Griese (1995-97) when he was at Michigan. "For three years, (Griese) couldn't find his way. All of a sudden, after three years of coaching he was dependable enough to lead them to a championship. That's where Stephen is right now.
"He's a dependable quarterback and if you're going to run Steve's offense, you have to earn his trust. I really believe he's earned Spurrier's trust now."
Garcia enters the SEC Championship game with 6,340 passing yards and 41 touchdowns in his three-year career. He's already established a career high for touchdown passes in a single season (18) and is approaching last season's passing yardage total (2,862 yards).
Garcia hasn't thrown an interception since the Arkansas game and is completing 65.9 percent (189-of-287) of his passes for 2,646 yards, an average of 220.5 yards per game, fifth highest in the SEC.
"I thought Garcia would take the tough coaching and the tough love that Steve (Spurrier) has given him for a couple of years," Danielson said. "He took that thoroughbred and pounded him into a guy that's not making mistakes. It's hard to gain Steve Spurrier's trust as a quarterback. But once you do, you get the benefit of his brain and his experience and his offense. Garcia has that benefit."
Lundquist and Danielson agreed that this USC team is different from ones in the past because of the array of weapons on offense, including Garcia, running back Marcus Lattimore and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.
While Lattimore, the SEC's second leading rusher with an average of 101.3 yards per game and the highest producing running back, has already created a buzz around college football with some of his impressive performances as a freshman, Saturday's nationally televised game could mark a breakthrough for Jeffery.
Jeffery, whose younger brother Shamir committed to USC on Monday, was recently named a First-team All-America by the American Football Coaches Association and is one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award, given annually to the nation's best wide receiver.
Danielson contended Jeffery, along with Georgia's A.J. Green, Alabama's Julio Jones and Greg Childs of Arkansas, "don't belong in college football" because they could excel at the NFL level right now and would be a "tough cover" for professional defensive backs.
"Alshon Jeffery is in the top five wide receivers in the country," Lundquist said. "And the freshman running back, Lattimore, has proven to be a real addition to the ballclub."
Danielson said USC is employing the same offensive strategy Florida did in the 1990's when they were winning all those SEC championship under Spurrier - building a big first half lead by playing "pretty wide open" and then "pound on you" in the second half.
Lattimore has been the difference, Danielson said.
"Steve has always wanted to do what he's doing this year," Danielson said. "He's just never had that running back that could do it and the quarterback that could put him in position to do it. But he has that kind of game now. He finally has an offensive line that had found its way."
After beating Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida and longtime rival Clemson in the same year, Danielson maintains USC won't be awestruck facing an Auburn team ranked No. 1 in the latest BCS standings for a second time in a little more than two months.
"That team isn't afraid of anyone," Danielson said. "Having played in the NFL, I know it's tough to beat somebody twice in the same season. Even when I was with the Detroit Lions, we felt we had the advantage the second time."
Many people have pointed to USC's 35-27 road loss to Auburn - a game in which USC led by six points (27-21) early in the fourth quarter - as an indicator that Saturday afternoon's contest will be close and hard fought. This time, though, there won't be 85,000 Auburn fans screaming at the top of their lungs at the Gamecocks.
Instead, the crowd at the Georgia Dome in downtown Atlanta is expected to be close to 50/50.
Lundquist wondered aloud, though, which USC team would show up in Atlanta - the one that dominated Alabama and Florida in impressive fashion or the team that was beaten by three touchdowns at home by Arkansas.
"I don't think it would be an enormous upset," Lundquist said. "After they won so convincingly at Florida - and that was such a signature victory for the program and for Steve Spurrier - I kind of expected a little bit of a letdown against Troy. And I certainly would not have been surprised by a letdown against Clemson in a rivalry game. Shucks, they dominated both of those games."
"I guess the question is this going to be the South Carolina team that did dominate Florida or the one that fell apart against Arkansas not too long ago?
Danielson believes it is difficult to defeat a team twice in a season, something Auburn will have to do.
"Even playing for the Detroit Lions, we always felt like we had an advantage the second time," he said.
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