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 COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -Steve Spurrier wanted his South Carolina players to think like Southeastern Conference contenders. Now, the Gamecocks are playing like SEC contenders.
``You got to believe,'' defensive end Eric Norwood said. ``Once you buy into it, there's no letting up.''
No. 11 South Carolina and Norwood didn't let up Thursday night, ending Kentucky's undefeated start and taking over first place in the SEC East with a 38-23 victory.
Norwood tied an NCAA record with two return touchdowns while he and the rest of the defense held the eighth-ranked Wildcats and quarterback Andre Woodson to half of their SEC-leading scoring average coming in.
Norwood said it wasn't far fetched to imagine the Gamecocks (5-1, 3-1 SEC) playing for their first league title.
``We don't harp on it every game,'' Norwood said. ``But I know it's in the back of everybody's head.''
It was placed there by a crafty ball coach who knows what it takes to win championships.
Right after the Gamecocks went 3-5 in the SEC last fall - Spurrier's first sub-.500 SEC season - the coach increased the team's goals. He wanted them to know they belonged on the field with schools like Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, which have pretty much owned the division since South Carolina became a league member in 1992.
Now that the Gamecocks are playing like SEC contenders, Spurrier has a different tone, saying it's way too early to plan for the Georgia Dome and a spot in December's title game.
``The only reason I set that goal of winning the SEC is just in case we got in position,'' Spurrier said. ``Just in case we happen to luck up and beat Georgia, and in case the ball bounced our way a little bit.''
The Gamecocks did defeat Georgia 16-12 on Sept. 8 for the first time in Spurrier's three seasons. They fell at top-ranked LSU 28-16, then bounced back with wins in their past two league games.
The capper was Kentucky, which came in having won 10 of its previous 11 games and had risen into the top 10 for the first time in three decades. Led by Woodson, a good-natured player who's performance this year - he had 16 touchdowns to only one interception before the South Carolina loss - had pushed him into the Heisman Trophy conversation.
Norwood said the Gamecocks used the hype about Woodson as motivation. ``We knew he was good, but we're not the type of defense that's going to let him throw for 300 yards or five touchdowns,'' Norwood said.
Instead, it was Norwood who pounced on Woodson's early fumble for a 2-yard TD, then scooped up a botched lateral Woodson threw for a 53-yard return score.
``I think he had an all-American type game,'' Spurrier said of Norwood.
The Gamecocks say they're ready for bigger things. They step out of the conference next week to take on North Carolina. Their next SEC opponent is Vanderbilt on Oct. 20, followed by critical road trips to Tennessee and Arkansas.
Then on Nov. 10 at Williams-Brice Stadium, defending national champ Florida arrives in what could be a showdown for the SEC East.
``We're in the race to win it all,'' South Carolina defensive back Captain Munnerlyn said.
This latest victory should push South Carolina into the top 10 for the first time in six years. It'll also raise the fears of fans throughout the SEC about the pending return of ``Darth Visor'' to the lofty SEC perch he occupied so frequently during 12 seasons at Florida.
Many were stunned when Spurrier left the Gators for the NFL. He shocked the college football world again when he picked South Carolina for his SEC return.
Spurrier came to the Gamecocks to achieve goals no one's ever accomplished in Columbia. Halfway through the season, the loftiest of those goals are starting to seem possible.

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