Surprising South Carolina climbs polls; Indiana's sad centennial

If the nation's fans tend to overlook the state of South Carolina as a college football stronghold, it may be because the names Clemson, Furman, and the Citadel disguise the location of these schools. Now, however, the university bearing the state's good name is causing people to take notice.

In fact, with a 7-0 record and No. 5 ranking the University of South Carolina has been more prominent than the USC in Los Angeles, which for years seemed to have a patent on the initials.

The Gamecocks grabbed a measure of the national limelight several years ago when running back George Rogers won the Heisman Trophy. But until this season, the team had never cracked the top 10 in either wire service poll. Mediocrity more than anything, seemed the program's middle name. A combined record of 386- 386-37 dating back to 1892 was worth a huge yawn.

Under Coach Joe Morrison, though, the team is establishing a real identity as a scrappy, undersized group of commandos who fear no one. An independent with no conference ties, South Carolina has taken on and beaten a mixed bag of well known teams, including Georgia, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame.

One sees a bit of a Bear Bryant's Alabama teams in the Gamecock squad. The defense (called the Fire Ants) is a swarming bunch, the offense hammers away with a handful of running backs, and the coach has made his black attire the sartorial equivalent of Bryant's houndstooth hats.

Morrison, once a running back with the New York Giants, coached at Tennessee-Chattanooga and New Mexico before arriving in Columbia last year. His first season the Gamecocks made minimal progress, going from 4-7 to 5-6. They did win the battle of the USC's, though, defeating Southern Cal in an upset that so stirred their fans that the upper deck of William-Brice Stadium actually shook. Thus, Morrison's slogan for the current campaign: ''If it ain't swayin', we ain't playin'.''

South Carolina has games left against North Carolina State, Florida State, Navy, and Clemson. Winning all of these games would lead to a major bowl invitation and a shot at the national championship, which Clemson came out of the woodwork to win with a perfect 12-0 record in 1981. Indiana on losing treadmill

The Indiana University football team is celebrating its 100th anniversary, but not very joyously. The Hoosiers are 0-8 and will have to pull an upset during one of the next three Saturdays to avoid the school's first winless season since 1894.

IU has just come off a tough 24-20 loss to Iowa and now must face Ohio State, the Big Ten's other co-leader. Then come two more of the conference's better teams, Illinois and Purdue. It's hardly the best way for Coach Bill Mallory to finish his first year in Bloomington.

No Mallory-coached team has ever done worse than 3-8, and one, his 1973 Miami (Ohio) team, was a perfect 11-0. He also turned around programs at Colorado and Northern Illinois in compiling a 99-52 career record before this year.

He's still looking for victory No. 100, though, and would dearly love to secure it before IU's centennial season runs out. Beating arch rival Purdue may be Indiana's best hope. The Old Oaken Bucket game is one of those proverbial ''throw away the book'' contests that the Hoosiers have won two of the last four years, losing by a point in the two other games during this period.

If there's a silver lining in this dismal season it's that Indiana has suffered only one double-digit loss. The team's average margin of defeat has been 91/2 points, which is far better than Northwestern did in 1981 as the Big Ten's last winless team. The Wildcats lost by an average of 381/2 points. Flutie's last-minute plot

Boston College's Doug Flutie is as heady a quarterback as you'll find. He's even dreamed up a strategy for a seemingly hopeless situation. When the other team leads by one and is running out the clock, here's what he would do.

''You want to tempt them to score, make them go for a touchdown. Maybe lie down on the field, maybe don't go out on the field, maybe just sort of stand in a huddle off to the side. They give the ball to a running back with nobody in his way and he's going to take the ball and go for a touchdown. It's instinct. ''They get the touchdown, you're down by seven. They get the extra point, you're down by eight. If they go for two you have to stop them. Either way you get the ball back with a chance to win or tie it. Otherwise they just sit on the ball and the game ends.''

Flutie realizes, of course, that this is a radical scheme not likely to find acceptance. ''You're not going to find any coaches who would say 'Let's go out and do it,' but I still say it would work.'' Playoff opponent speaks out

Illinois Coach Mike White on why he opposes a college football playoff: ''Now a team has a chance to sneak into a bowl with a 7-4 record or even 6-5, but no team would get into a playoff that way. Some people say a playoff would settle the question of who is No. 1, but I say, 'Who cares?' For us, the big thrill was cracking the top 20.''

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