“Our worst fears were realized.”
A quote doesn’t get more raw, real and genuine than that, and that was certainly the case when Steve Spurrier uttered those words at his Sunday afternoon press conference today in Columbia. The sentence was in regards to his star running back Marcus Lattimore, the Gamecocks best player, who left Saturday’s 14-12 win over Mississippi State with an apparent knee injury. And now, Spurrier’s worst fears have been realized. Lattimore is out the rest of the season, as an MRI revealed that Lattimore suffered a torn ligament and cartilage damage in his left knee.
First, let’s start with the tangible numbers and say that outside Trent Richardson, Lattimore had been as good as any running back in college football this season. At the time of the injury, he ranked seventh in the country with 818 yards rushing, and his 10 touchdowns were tied for the seventh nationally as well. Lattimore had rushed for at least 100 yards in four of South Carolina’s seven games, and had a touchdown in every game but one. The one game he didn’t? Interestingly it was last Saturday’s 54-3 win over Kentucky, which was the largest margin of victory ever for South Carolina in an SEC game.
But really, to talk about Lattimore’s injury in tangible terms is to take away all the intangibles he brings to the table. He was not only the best player on this team, but also one of the few leaders that could be found anywhere in the locker room. His leadership took on added significance as the team faced unparalleled turmoil this past week, when former starting quarterback Stephen Garcia was kicked off the team for reportedly failing a drug and alcohol test. With Garcia gone and true sophomore Connor Shaw stepping in to replace him, by default the offense was going to feature Lattimore more. It had to. Without him, it’s hard to say exactly where it will turn.
And because of that, Lattimore’s injury quite literally leaves South Carolina’s season on the brink.
The defending SEC East champs were the only team in their division to control their own destiny, as every team except Georgia has at least three losses in conference. Georgia has just one, but the Gamecocks held a head-to-head tiebreaker with them after beating them in Athens the second week of the season. If the Gamecocks win out in conference, they’ll make a return trip to Atlanta for the first time in school history.
Now though, that’s not looking nearly as guaranteed.
The truth is, that Georgia has already made it through the meat of their conference play, with the only real tough remaining SEC games against a reeling Florida club in Jacksonville in two weeks, and a visit from Auburn after that. Incredibly, they don’t have a remaining SEC road game.
But South Carolina? Well, the Gamecocks are another story. They have an open date this week before road trips to Tennessee and Arkansas, the latter of which is a legitimate Top 10 team. And even if South Carolina survives that, there’s still a visit from Florida to close out conference play. Although it doesn’t affect conference standings, a season-ending game against Clemson (which is currently 7-0 and ranked No. 8 in the country) seemingly gets tougher by the week. Things were bad enough with Lattimore, but without him it’s an all-out disaster.
Which brings us back to Spurrier’s quote, “Our worst fears are realized.” And really, reflecting on that, we couldn’t think of a worse injury for a team at a worse time. Lattimore’s presence in this struggling offense (they’ve scored 21 or less points in three of their last four games), was beyond imperative; if anything, you could make the case that outside Andrew Luck, Lattimore was more important to his team than any other player in the country. The passing game is struggling, and incredibly, beyond Lattimore, only the quarterback Shaw has more than 100 yards rushing on the season.
Now, Lattimore is gone, and so to it appears are South Carolina’s chances of making any big noise in the SEC.
Follow Aaron Torres on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.