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COLUMBIA — There was never any chance of overlooking this game. It seemed Appalachian State would visit Williams-Brice Stadium Saturday as a Top-25 team, one that had Cotton Bowl aspirations.

But it was never about the credentials the Mountaineers would bring. Starting from the moment the horn sounded on a debilitating 24-20 loss to North Carolina to start the season, it was impossible for South Carolina to overlook anybody on its schedule.

South Carolina is a mediocre football team that shouldn’t be this mediocre. It’s a team that counted on the consistency that comes with being experienced and talented, but has been nothing but inconsistent.

Yet the Gamecocks go into this weekend with a chance of making a bowl game, which was about all that was expected from this year. Appalachian State will not be going to the Cotton Bowl, but it still wants to win.

Nothing would be better for the Mountaineers than beating North Carolina and South Carolina in the same season, winning on an SEC field and getting paid $900,000 to do it.

Here are four keys to a Gamecocks’ victory Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium:

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Strike early and often

If USC wants to put Appalachian State away, the Gamecocks must quickly quell any thoughts of an upset.

For all of USC play-caller Bryan McClendon’s woes this season, his scripts for the first two series of each game have been pretty good. Rico Dowdle’s 16-yard catch-and-run against UNC, the flea-flicker against Florida and the touchdown to Shi Smith against Tennessee were all flawlessly executed.

Get a couple of those dialed up with a defensive stop in front or between, and the crowd gets into it on what’s going to be a chilly night. USC fans at this point are just waiting for another reason to boo Will Muschamp and his team’s performance, and nothing would trigger them more than falling behind to a Sun Belt team (even if it was in the Top 25 more recently than USC has been).

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Hit the brakes

“Tempo” has been as much a part of Muschamp’s vocabulary as “run fits” or “it’s on me, and we’ll get it fixed.” He says the Gamecocks prefer to go fast on offense and they always want to keep the defense on its heels.

There are benefits to it. There are also disadvantages, such as playing with a quarterback (Ryan Hilinski) who hasn’t looked his sharpest in six weeks and a banged-up tailback rotation (Tavien Feaster is out this week but Dowdle should return).

If you go fast and don’t hit any plays, it’s a three-and-out in less than a minute. If that possession comes after an Appalachian State time-consuming score, a tired USC defense is right back on the field.

Slowing down isn’t a guarantee to score, but it does wind more clock and keeps Appalachian’s offense on the sideline.

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Remember The Citadel

Seven Gamecocks (Joseph Charlton, Mon Denson, Daniel Fennell, Kyle Markway, Michael Almond, Donell Stanley and A.J. Turner) were at USC in 2015, although only Markway and Stanley actually played that season.

They’ll be honored Saturday as seniors on the same field where they lost to The Citadel four years ago.

That loss never goes away. It’s as much a part of their careers as beating No. 3 Georgia at Sanford Stadium a month ago.

But it could always be worse. And although Appalachian State is an FBS team now, it wasn’t that long ago that it was an FCS team in the Southern Conference … like The Citadel.

It’s up to those seven, five of which will play Saturday, to leave USC without another loss of that magnitude.

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Win one for the coach

Who really knows if Muschamp’s future at USC is in jeopardy? The only man who does, Ray Tanner, isn’t telling.

Saturday’s game marks Senior Night for 25 Gamecocks, all of whom truly love their coach. If they want to help him, they need to win this one.

Prediction

South Carolina 27, Appalachian State 24