USC isn’t calling Kentucky game a measuring stick. But it’s shaping up as one

Alex Slitz/aslitz@herald-leader.com

Shane Beamer’s seen the highs and lows at South Carolina.

He was on Steve Spurrier’s staff just before it ripped off three consecutive 11-win seasons. He also inherited a mess of a situation following Will Muschamp’s firing.

Heading into a Saturday contest at No. 13 Kentucky, Beamer has a chance to send his program closer to the days of Spurrier than those of his predecessor — even if he won’t put it in those terms.

“You’re judged on 12 Saturdays a year,” Beamer said during his weekly Sunday teleconference. “We’ve won three of them. We didn’t play well enough in two of them. And every single week we try and get better as a football team. This week is is the next (opportunity).”

Let’s be clear: If South Carolina falls in Lexington this Saturday, that’s not an indictment of the Beamer era.

However, the contest is a measuring stick against a program the Gamecocks ought to aspire to be.

It’s not so far gone that Kentucky was an afterthought and then some in the Southeastern Conference. Spurrier won eight of his 10 games against the Wildcats, outscoring UK 351-223 in those contests and 152-127 in Lexington.

Head coach Mark Stoops, though, has elevated Kentucky’s program over the last eight years. Following a 2-10 debut and a pair of 5-7 seasons, his squads have finished with seven or more wins in five of the last six years — the lone exclusion being a 5-6 mark during the 2020 COVID campaign.

Kentucky’s seventh-year coach also owns two of the four 10-win campaigns in Kentucky history, both of which have come in the last five years. The only other times that had happened? 1950 and 1977.

“If you’re going to beat Kentucky,” Beamer said, “you’ve got to go beat them.”

South Carolina hasn’t fared well against stiffer competition in Beamer’s brief tenure.

The Gamecocks have been outscored 390-242 in 12 games against Power Five competition in a season and a half under Beamer. Ranked opponents are 4-0 vs. USC under Beamer and have out-dueled the Gamecocks 176-64 in four such games.

South Carolina, though, has shown encouraging signs of life in recent weeks — albeit against the two weakest teams on its schedule.

The offense that was completely discombobulated against then-No. 1 Georgia in Week 3 has looked more organized in wins against Charlotte and S.C. State.

Quarterback Spencer Rattler turned in back-to-back weeks completing more than 73% of his passes. His 212-yard effort against S.C. State last week was his best outing since a 373-yard explosion at Arkansas, earning him internal offensive player of the week honors, per Beamer.

Running back MarShawn Lloyd, too, has looked closer to the back USC’s staff envisioned over the offseason. His 169 yards against Charlotte were a career-high. He notched the second-best effort of his time in Columbia with 80 yards on Thursday against S.C. State.

Simple as it is, if those two continue to click, it only figured to bode well for the Gamecocks.

“It shows you how mature our team is and how close-knit our team is,” Lloyd said Thursday of the offense’s progression the last two weeks. “It’s just been great. We showed we can score 50 points. A lot of people said we can’t score. A lot of people said we can’t get a stop. But these last two weeks have been amazing on all cylinders.”

South Carolina had its chances against Kentucky a season ago. Had the Gamecocks shown a slight pulse offensively, it might’ve walked away with a victory.

Instead, Beamer’s bunch slipped to 2-2 and 0-2 in the SEC at the time with a 16-10 loss in which it recorded just 216 yards of offense.

This Saturday’s contest isn’t a must-win, but it’s the kind of game USC needs if it hopes to reach the seven- or eight-win threshold some preseason prognosticators pegged it for ahead of this year.

South Carolina has had big wins under Beamer. The Duke’s Mayo Bowl romp of North Carolina led to plenty of offseason fodder. Dismantling Florida and outlasting Auburn a season ago were shockers in themselves.

Still, USC hasn’t recorded a résumé-boosting road win in Beamer’s 18 games as head coach.

Saturday is another chance at such against a program that’s punched well above its history in recent years. It’s hard to overstate how much that would mean.