MIAMI, DEC. 4 -- No. 8 South Carolina presents the final threat to No. 2 Miami Saturday night in the last important game of the college football regular season.
Unlike some of Miami's recent foes, including East Carolina and Toledo, the Gamecocks (8-2) are a fine, tricky-fast team with a run-and-shoot offense and a blitz-and-sack defense that will pose a multitude of problems for the Hurricanes (10-0) when they meet at the Orange Bowl (8 p.m., ESPN).
The Gamecocks enter this contest with a 6-foot-3 passer named Todd Ellis, who has thrown for 2,761 yards in just his sophomore season, and a blitz-crazed defense ranked No. 2 in the nation, giving up just nine points per game. All Miami has to lose is its ranking and self-respect before it plays No. 1 Oklahoma for the national championship in the Orange Bowl game on New Year's Day. All South Carolina has to gain is the upset of the season.
"Obviously, we could ruin their national championship," Ellis said. "All we can do is move up."
South Carolina has done far more moving than anyone thought it ever would. The Gamecocks' only losses came to Georgia and Nebraska, by a total of 16 points, before they went on to win their last six.
"They're about two or three players away from being one of the best teams in the country," said Miami wide receiver Michael Irvin.
If the Gamecocks have been somewhat ignored, it is because of a relatively unimpressive schedule, a 3-6-2 record last season and the two early losses that gave them a 2-2 record. Given up for mediocre by the rest of the country, they went on to wipe out the next six teams by a total of 230-39, becoming a dominant squad that won by an average score of 38-7.
"A lot of us feel that a break here and there would have made us undefeated," defensive back Brad Edwards said. "We were written off because of the 2-2 start, but people started to look a little deeper when we kept winning."
A few other facts about this upstart. Its coach, Joe Morrison, is that guy who used to play for the New York Giants. Its quarterback, Ellis, was one of the most highly recruited players in the country out of Page High School in Greensboro, N.C., turning down Stanford.
The frenzy to get Ellis to South Carolina included an effective stunt: coaches took him to the stadium one night, where a loudspeaker blared crowd roars and the Voice of the Gamecocks announced a mock game in which Ellis threw three touchdown passes to beat Nebraska.
"I made a more logical and sensible decision to come here," he said.
In his freshman season he was an immediate hit because of his powerful arm. He already has become the school's career passing leader, throwing for 5,781 yards.
Ellis is a primary reason for this season's success, becoming a confident leader of the gimmicky run and shoot, a no-tight end, single-back offense that gives him four receivers and a variety of audibles. Although he has thrown 18 interceptions, he also has completed 57 percent of his passes, nine for touchdowns. Many of them have landed in the hands of a little-known but projected top-10 NFL draft pick named Sterling Sharp, who has caught 52 passes for 793 yards.
But the Gamecocks made another crucial change from last season, when their defense gave up 370 yards and 27 points a game and lost to Miami, 34-14. They threw out the 3-4 defense and installed a 50 front that blitzes at will. The alignment emphasizes the unit's speed and deemphasizes its lack of substance: they average just 248 pounds along the line.
Ultimately, South Carolina may be just a touch too young and too small to cope with a Miami team that must be recognized as one of the most potent in the country, regardless of schedule. A 24-0 victory over Notre Dame last week answered some, though not all, questions about the Hurricanes' ability.
Their own "Bennie and the Jets" defense led by all-America defensive back Bennie Blades is ranked No. 6 in the nation; their offense, led by quarterback Steve Walsh, is No. 3.
"We haven't seen a team yet with the gall to send the pass rush," Irvin said. "But if we don't pick the blitz up, we could be in trouble."