Waiting for the Gamecocks at the end of the line, beckoning them like a carrot at the end of a long stick, is an undefeated regular season, a conference championship, a possible No. 1 ranking and a potential top seed in the NCAA playoffs.
It’s laid out for a November to remember that should carry them straight into December.
“This is the most important November we’ve ever had,” Gamecocks coach Jack Crowe said Monday.
But it doesn’t come without landmines.
The gauntlet starts Saturday with what Crowe called the best defensive team the Gamecocks (8-0) have played outside of Ole Miss in Eastern Kentucky. Anchored by two dominant 290-pound tackles, Andrew Soucy and Emory Attig, the Colonels (3-5) lead the OVC in rushing defense, holding Ohio Valley Conference opponents to less than 100 yards a game.
Then, it’s the best offensive team and their first opponent with a winning record this season in top 10 Southeast Missouri for what should decide the OVC title. And then, perhaps standing between the Gamecocks and immortality, there’s a rising Tennessee Tech team that falls somewhere in between.
EKU holds the key to it all.
“Not disrespecting or saying ‘less than’ down the road, but they are the key,” Crowe said. “It’s a playoff game.
“We need to put the game inside of our own aspirations. Pain and gain are the two things that move people. We’ve got a lot to gain and hopefully we don’t have to feel some pain to get ourselves moving, because it’ll be painful to not play our best football.”
And that has been a fate known to befall the Gamecocks when they play the Colonels, even though they lead the series.
Two years ago, they lost a game in which Ryan Perrilloux was intercepted five times. The year before, the Colonels returned two kickoffs for touchdowns and sent Crowe flying against the retaining wall on a play that carried into the bench area.
“There’s nobody we have consistently played bad football against sometimes than this bunch,” Crowe said. “Those are just enormously bad examples of football. That would just be the icing. There’s a cakeful of it, the things we’ve done.”
On the other hand, the Gamecocks have made November their personal playground. They have won their last six November games and are 16-6 in the final month of the season since joining the OVC in 2003. Two of those losses have come in the NCAA playoffs and two came at the end of a 2007 season fraught with discipline problems.
“If it’s anything, I think we’ve felt the challenge,” Crowe said of the team’s recent last-month success. “We’ve had some things out in front of us, plus we treat it different. We protect them a little bit more this time of year.
“Some teams can’t sustain the detail of the game in November. You put the combination of not being focused on detail with somebody making it harder on you because they know where you’re going and what you’re trying to do, there’s usually more upsets in November than any other month.”
The players realize the approach to the game changes at this time of year, when the intensity grows hotter as the temperatures get colder. They have the mindset of not letting those upsets Crowe talked about happen.
The Gamecocks are working on a 12-game winning streak, the second-longest streak in Division I football, and have won 16 of their last 17. A win Saturday would give them the fifth-longest winning streak in OVC history.
“This November is very special because we have never come in undefeated with a chance of going to the playoff with home field advantage and stuff like that,” center Tyler Ogletree said. “We’re treating it like we’ve got a lot on the line and if we lose it could hurt us.
“We’re trying to play for keeps. We really want it, especially as seniors. We talk about it every day in the middle of the locker room how bad we want it and what’s at stake.”
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.