The tune-ups are over … from here on out the rubber meets the road.

What sort of football team does the University of South Carolina really have this year?  We’ll find out starting next Saturday when head coach Steve Spurrier’s squad kicks off a brutal stretch of seven consecutive Southeastern Conference games – including match-ups against seventh-ranked Georgia and third-ranked LSU.

And if USC plays the way it did through the first thirty minutes of Saturday’s 49-6 win over the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) – Gamecock fans could be in for a long, long season.  Of course if eighth-ranked South Carolina (3-0, 1-0 SEC) shows the same sort of explosiveness it demonstrated in the second half against the Blazers (0-2, 0-0 Conference USA), then Spurrier may have a few “firsts” yet to accomplish with this program.

Speaking of Spurrier, the head coach won his 200th career victory against UAB – becoming one of only four active Division I (a.k.a. FBS) coaches to reach that milestone.  Junior tailback Marcus Lattimore also had a history-making night, breaking the school mark for career touchdowns with thirty-four.  It took Lattimore just 23 games to break the record – half the time it took 1980 Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers.

Connor Shaw receives attention after re-injuring his shoulder.

Still, these high points were accompanied by plenty of nadirs.  For example late in the first half junior quarterback Connor Shaw re-aggravated a shoulder injury suffered during USC’s season-opening win over Vanderbilt.  Ironically, Shaw’s “re-injury” occurred on one of the few decent balls he threw all night – as many of his throws lacked zip or were dreadfully off the mark.

In two quarters of action Shaw was 8 of 14 for 107 yards with one touchdown and one interception – but even prior to the injury he struggled to make plays against an inferior opponent.  In addition to the diminished arm strength he exhibited, the fleet-footed quarterback repeatedly shied away from contact when running the football – taking away a key component of his game.

Sophomore Dylan Thompson, the hero of last week’s win over East Carolina, took over in relief of Shaw – although he didn’t play much better initially.

After throwing an interception on his first pass of the game (which was wiped out by a roughing the passer penalty), Thompson threw another ball right into the hands of UAB safety Jake Ganus – who couldn’t hang on to it. Eventually Thompson settled down, though, reigniting a quarterback controversy that began a week ago after his impressive debut against the Pirates.

Midway through the third quarter the 6-foot-3, 212-pound Boiling Springs native connected with sophomore speedster Damiere Byrd on a gorgeous 94-yard touchdown pass – the fourth-longest scoring strike in school history.  Thompson also hit heralded freshman Shaq Roland in stride in the end zone for a thirty-yard strike – Roland’s first collegiate touchdown.

Thompson finished 5 of 10 for 177 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.  Taking a page out of Shaw’s book, he also scored on a six-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter.

So … who will start for the Gamecocks next week against Missouri?

“We’ll play whoever we think is the best to go,” Spurrier said after the game.

At this point it seems highly unlikely that Shaw will be ready to play against the Tigers.  The exact nature of his injury hasn’t been revealed, but it’s obvious that he wasn’t playing at 100 percent even before taking the jarring hit from UAB linebacker Greg Irvin that knocked him out of the game.  That means Thompson could very well make his first-ever SEC start next week against Mizzou – which moved to 2-1 this weekend with a 24-20 win over Arizona State.

Defensively, South Carolina gave up big chunks of yardage in the first half but shut the Blazers down in the second stanza.  Sophomore superstar Jadeveon Clowney had a pair of sacks and two tackles for loss to lead the Gamecocks’ dominant defensive line – while senior free safety D.J. Swearinger scored the game’s first touchdown on a 65-yard fumble return that showcased his “breakaway speed.”  Swearinger also had an interception wiped away by a roughing the passer penalty.  Senior linebacker Shaq Wilson had a game-high eight tackles.

For the third straight game, the USC defense did not surrender a red zone touchdown.

USC vs. UAB Stats

Pic: Travis Bell, Sideline Carolina