Missouri crosses something of a final frontier of realignment this weekend when the Tigers play at South Carolina, their first Southeastern Conference road game.Sparky Woods remembered a similar occasion 20 years ago. He was in his fourth season as the Gamecocks head coach, the first in the SEC.The college football world was different then. The SEC didnt dominate the landscape as it does now on the strength of six straight national championships. Miami was coming off its title run, and Florida State and Nebraska were about to own the rest of the decade.But the seeds of todays SEC dynasty had been planted by the leagues expansion to South Carolina and Arkansas and the divisional play that produced the most successful conference championship game. And if the conference wasnt yet what it would become, it was more difficult than anything the Gamecocks had experienced, especially when they went on the road.South Carolinas got a pretty big place with great fans who get loud, Woods said. We always thought we had a pretty good advantage.Then we join the SEC and go to their places, and its like that just about everywhere. We had to learn how to communicate on the field better.South Carolina had operated as a football independent for more than two decades after the leaving the ACC, and in its first year in the new conference started 0-5 overall, with four losses coming in league play. The fifth was a 48-7 blowout at Alabama to a Tide team that went on to win the national title.We started hearing about how we didnt belong in the league, said Kerry Tharp, NASCARs senior director of competitions communication, who was South Carolinas media relations director then. We get blown out by Alabama, and then we had an open week for everybody to talk about it.It was pretty down time for us.Things changed for the Gamecocks at that moment. They switched quarterbacks, giving the job to a brash freshman, the mullet-wearing Steve Taneyhill, and won five of their last six, including victories over Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Tennessee.When the season was over, South Carolina no longer felt like an outsider. But the Gamecocks felt something else soreness.That was the other thing, said Woods, who is now the head coach at VMI. The physical toll was something we hadnt dealt with before. That was the biggest adjustment we had to make. We had to build more depth.Woods coached one more season at South Carolina. Not until 2000, the Gamecocks ninth SEC season and second under Lou Holtz, would the program turn in a winning SEC record. But even Holtz, who won everywhere, couldnt sustain success. He gave way to Steve Spurrier in 2005, and the past two years have been some of the best in school history.South Carolina played in its first SEC championship game in 2010, and last years 11-2 season set a school mark for victories.To Woods, Missouri is further along in its new home than his program was.Playing in the Big 12 gave them and Texas A&M an advantage we didnt have, Woods said. They were used to playing in a competitive environment and in front of big crowds.We had to adapt to playing football at a different speed.Missouri got its first taste of the SEC two weeks ago in a 41-20 loss to Georgia. The margin wasnt indicative of the games competitiveness, but the pace of play did provide a measure of how things typically work in the SEC. Eventually, defense carries the day. Missouri led 17-9 in the third quarter only to have the Bulldogs defense come up huge and deliver its offense short-field scores.South Carolina has become a strong SEC contender because of its defensive improvement. Only national championship-game teams Alabama and LSU had better-ranked defenses in the SEC last year than the Gamecocks.The one thing that hasnt changed over the years is the defense, Woods said. SEC teams are winning championships every year, but they always played great defense. Thats what its going to take for anybody in that league, whether youre a newcomer or not.
Posted on Thu, Sep. 20, 2012 11:13 PMShare Email Print Order Reprints
As first SEC seasons go, Missouri is ahead of South Carolina
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