Ole Miss is sitting at No. 4 in the AP poll. Yes, Ole Miss, which hasn't won a conference title since 1963, is that high in the polls. The Rebels are in that rarified national air based on going 9-4 last year and pounding Memphis and Southeastern Louisiana this year.
So, yeah, Ole Miss has a ton to prove.
Steve Spurrier is in his fifth season at South Carolina and in the previous four years he's done essentially nothing. He's 30-23 overall, including 2-1 this season. That’s about what South Carolina always does.
The man who won six SEC championships at Florida and promised to lead the Gamecocks to similar glory is now, at 64, dealing with questions about whether he can ever get it done. Not to mention whether he's more focused on trying to get rounds in at Augusta National. He hardly even talks a good game anymore.
So, yeah, South Carolina has a ton to prove.
Which makes Thursday's game in Columbia one of the great put-up-or-shut-up games of the season.
These are two programs with great potential and greater aspirations that season after season, decade after decade, coach after coach, rarely do much of anything. Yet there is reason to believe that they could be on the verge of something big, a breakthrough to better days and the cusp of a historic season.
And so much of it could hinge on Thursday's game – two programs, two directions.
"Big for them … big for us," Spurrier said Tuesday.
Is it now or never?
Ole Miss has players. South Carolina does too. The recruiting at both places has been strong. Both are capable of being one of those upstart non-traditional powers from major conferences that make a lot of noise for a season. The way Texas Tech was last year, or Kansas and Missouri the one before that.
It's not too much to suggest that one team might have its season and its program vaulted into legitimacy and the other will slink home under a familiar shroud of skepticism.
If Ole Miss is really a BCS contender, really a top-five team, really boasts a Heisman candidate in Jevan Snead at quarterback then it should walk into Williams-Brice Stadium and win. Top-five, national-title contending teams have been doing that forever.
If Spurrier has his program ready to contend for an SEC title, which he certainly thought would happen by the time the roster was full of his recruits, then the Gamecocks ought to defeat Ole Miss. SEC champions have been doing that forever.
These two programs have been two of the biggest teases for years. Their home states may lack the populations of Florida or Georgia, but both are annually loaded with top talent. While the SEC is a beast and no one is suggesting these schools should overnight become Alabama, both programs have facilities, rabidly loyal fan bases and the commitment to winning though that should result in at least the occasional conference title (or at least contention).
Yet it hasn't happened at either place. It's mostly (at best) been a steady parade of six- or seven-win seasons, which considering neither team plays an ambitious non-conference slate isn't saying much.
Not even Eli Manning could get Ole Miss to a divisional crown. Not even Lou Holtz or Spurrier has broken through for the Gamecocks.
So now here comes this season of exceptional promise in Oxford. Ed Orgeron recruited a heck of a roster. Houston Nutt has come in from Arkansas to coach it up, yet he knows that a program like Ole Miss needs to prove (including to itself) that it belongs in the national elite.
"This is why you come to Ole Miss – to play the type of game like this," Nutt said. "Really, there is nothing like it. … It is big for everybody. It only helps Ole Miss. When you win and have good things happen to you, especially nationally, good things happen for the entire program."
Spurrier was supposed to have his program roaring by now. He arrived with great fanfare in 2005 from a brief stint with the Washington Redskins. He'd revolutionized the SEC during his time at Florida, turning an old regional league built on power running into a high-flying national one that threw on every down.
He could've held out for a school with a better track record of winning, but instead boasted that he wanted the challenge of winning a league title at a school where it hadn't been done. He immediately began luring recruits who wanted to dream along with him, He almost ruined Florida's 2006 BCS title season. He briefly got into the top 10 in 2007.
Yet he's never found the right quarterback, never got that old Fun-n-Gun offense firing. It's been a tractor pull, his pained sideline expressions growing deeper with each frustration.
It's been worth wondering if Spurrier's gumption finally got the best of him at the collegiate level when he thought he could spin South Carolina around so easily.
A win over a top-five opponent, on weeknight national television would go a long way to showing it's possible.
Or that it's impossible.
One way or the other, one team or the other, someone is going to take a step to proving they're worthy of the expectations. And someone is going to leave looking like the same old, same old program.
- South Carolina
- Steve Spurrier