Every season is a big one for Gamecocks fans. But few in recent memory have brought as much hope and hype as this one.
We were out and about in Columbia Thursday, talking with folks before the 6 p.m. kickoff against the Tar Heels. Here's what we found. :
The faithful come home
Chuck Dennis, a 1987 USC graduate, headed into the stadium with thousands of others about an hour before the 6 p.m. kickoff.
Dennis traveled down from his home in Virginia Beach, driving six hours after waking up at 6 a.m.
He has had season tickets for about eight years.
He carried binoculars, rally towels and a radio into the stadium. He tunes into the play-by-play on the radio so he can hear whats happening.
During the seasons the Gamecocks werent as good as they are now, Dennis said it made being a fan "painful at times."
Especially when USC lost to a team they should have beat.
"It makes for a little longer drive," he said.
But, like thousands of other Gamecock fans, his hopes were high heading into the season opener.
In the press booth: We had to turn people away
The Williams-Brice Stadium press box was as packed as the stands Thursday as kickoff neared.
Steve Fink, the director of athletics media relations, said his office issued 483 credentials, the most in his nine seasons at South Carolina.
We had to turn people away, Fink said.
With so many media passes being given out from USA Today to Sports Illustrated to Al Jazeera America Fink had to move the NFL scouts who normally sit in the press box to the stands. And there were 30 of them, an unusually high number as well.
Of course, ESPN, which was broadcasting the game nationally, had a huge contingent, too. Former USC coach Lou Holtz was part of the on-site studio crew at the game. Even ESPN president John Skipper was in attendance.
Robbie Seawell, whose Seawells restaurant and catering business on Rosewood Drive feeds the press box occupants, knew he was going to be busy filling up plates with chicken, green beans and potatoes.
Were prepared, Seawell said. We can send a golf cart back across the street if we need more supplies.
At Gamecock Walk: Its good memories
Brayden Lee wore a USC football jersey with a No. 7 on it, as he cheered USC players heading to the stadium along Gamecock Walk.
"He can hit really hard," Brayden said of USCs own No. 7, Jadeveon Clowney.
And the famous player is from the Rock Hill area Braydens hometown, too.
Brayden plays football for his sixth grade team and plans to play for the team Clowney played for in high school.
And one day, he hopefully will play for the Gamecocks.
Braydens parents, Reid and Matt Lee, went to the games with their parents when they were younger, too.
Its good memories, Reid Lee said.
Bringing their son is a tradition.
We bleed Garnet and Black at our house, Matt Lee said. We love the Gamecocks.
The scene at Gamecock Walk:
ESPN, Holtz weather the weather
The weather didnt make it comfortable, but the ESPN regality fought through it.
Announcers Jesse Palmer, Rece Davis, David Pollack and Sam Ponder were broadcasting from inside Williams-Brice Stadium while another crew was broadcasting from the sideline, three hours before kickoff.
Scott Van Pelt, Mark May and Lou Holtz were giving their views of the South Carolina-North Carolina game, plus the rest of the opening weekend of college football, through the hazy heat and humidity.
Holtz, USCs coach from 1999-2004, was back in the stadium as an analyst. The stadium was beginning to fill a process he started, in a sense.
It was under Holtz that the Gamecocks became a national name, and thus (some say) caught the eye of Steve Spurrier.
Get fired up
Gear up before kickoff with your Sandstorm fix.
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3 p.m.: Let the music begin
Two Carolina fans talked to country singer Patrick Davis just before Thursday afternoons concert outside Williams-Brice Stadium.
But each fan was rooting for a separate Carolina.
Tommy Wilburn, of Clarksville, Va., was wearing a Tar Heels jersey while he got a "Big Ole Cock" Coozie signed by the country singer. Even though he rooted for the other team, he said he loves Davis The Gamecock Album and listened to it on his way down to Columbia.
His friend of 45 years, Fred Tarry, is a USC fan and graduated from the school in 1994.
The game decides which Carolina is the real one, Tarry said.
"North Carolina will always be above South Carolina," Wilburn joked. "Have you looked at a map?"
Watch a video of Davis nephews playing football outside the stadium before the concert:
For mobile users, click here.
Have shuttle, will travel
Game day fans eager to avoid the traffic or hassle of driving began gathering at one of four Carolina shuttle pick-up stops shortly before 3 p.m.
The buses use back routes and are given special pass-through at major intersections, which helps expedite the trip. Around 3 p.m. the short trip from the Carolina Coliseum back lot to the fairgrounds took about seven minutes.
USC senior J. W. Wilkerson has been a regular on the shuttle for years.
"Ive got a parking pass in the coliseum so its just the easiest way not to pay and meet my friends at our tailgate spot," Wilkerson said.
The shuttle service provides semi-express transportation from several areas around the USC campus to the front of the S.C. State Fairgrounds. The round-trip service runs three hours before each kickoff and an hour-and-a-half after the game with pick-ups and drop-offs at The Russell House, The Carolina Coliseum back parking lot, and Bomber Stadium. Admission is free for USC students, $3.50 for the general public.
Lin Wright, USC director of vehicles, said the shuttle averages upwards of 4,500 passengers every home game but added the goal is to eventually reach 8,000.
"The more students that get there faster and safer and easier, the better it is for them and it also reduces the traffic on the highway," Wright said.
Tailgating: We dont go hungry
Phyllis Kelly starts cooking the day before a Carolina game.
Then she and her husband, Steve, load the truck up for Columbia from Walhalla.
Theyve been doing it since 1995, son Stephen said.
We havent missed too many home games since then, Stephen Kelly, USC grad, said. This is our 19th season.
This years tailgating spot, just off Market Street, has a lot to recommend it: Shade, grass and air-conditioned restrooms, courtesy of Fleet Guard Maintenance.
The Kellys set up tables covered in Gamecocks fabric, a generator for fans (and, when the game is televised, a TV) and lots of food.
Buffalo wings, boiled peanuts, hamburgers. Chicken nuggets, nachos and a downright inspired strawberry cake, with garnet fruit nestled under a sugary glaze.
Sometimes, theres a Lowcountry boil or shrimp and grits.
We dont go hungry, Steve Kelly acknowledged.
Rounding out the group: daughter Celeste Holcomb ("my husband went to Clemson, so hes not here") and friends Joe and Alicia Clark of Lexington.
Lunchtime: Pass the chicken, please
Three Gamecock fans ate fried chicken and talked Gamecocks at Bernies Chicken near Williams-Brice Stadium, waiting for about eight more of their friends to join their tailgate.
"Were eatin the chicken, not the rooster," said Herb Ward, from Moncks Corner.
So, just how much do they like the Gamecocks?
"The last time I missed a Carolina game my granddaughter was born, and I still hold that against her," Herb Ward said.
J.B. Brown of Greer answered by showing off his tattoo of a Gamecock on his calf.
Ward said hell get a tattoo on his calf as well when the Gamecocks win the SEC championship.
ESPN: On food, Williams-Brice, Gamecock odds
ESPNs crew that will call Thursday nights opener between the University of South Carolina and North Carolina spoke to the media earlier in the day.
Analyst David Pollack, a former star Georgia defensive end, compared the athleticism of USC star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney with Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton of Auburn.
I think Cam Newton was super human, a super freak, Pollack said. (Clowney) wears No. 7. He could probably play receiver. I promise you when the UNC players line up, they will be like, Wheres Waldo? Wheres No. 7?
Fellow analyst Jesse Palmer, a former Florida quarterback, said USC gans should expect nothing less an SEC East title season with the Gamecocks schedule that does not include Southeastern Conference powerhouses, Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M.
He added that Williams-Brice Stadium is the most underrated stadium in college football.
Former USC coach Lou Holtz, an ESPN studio analyst, is in town, but it was a question about whether his partner, former pro lineman Mark May, would ever pick the Gamecocks to win that got announcer Rece Davis animated.
Same as the odds of Lou ever picking against (USC), Davis joked.
Palmer is the crews culinary connoisseur. He has taken them to Pawleys Front Porch, Mr. Friendlys and Colas.
I feast. Its a huge priority for me, Palmer said. This is one of those great cities and campuses for great food.
Watch a video clip from the ESPN event here:
For mobile users, click here.
Sounds of the (football) season
You dont have to wait for game days to hear the Gamecock fight song and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Thats because it plays weekdays in downtown Columbia along Main Street, echoing from the top of the Keenan Building during football season.
At 9 a.m., noon and 5 p.m. each weekday, the Gamecock fight song is projected through the buildings rooftop speakers along with the 2001: A Space Odyssey, theme song, which provides the backdrop for the USC football teams entrance into Williams-Brice Stadium each home game.
The tradition was launched by the buildings former owners nearly 10 years ago and is now being carried on by new owners Patel, Lewis, Pournaras.
The citywide serenade is especially sweet today for eager Gamecock fans, as the team prepares to launch one of the most anticipated seasons in school history. The No. 6 preseason ranking is USCs highest ever.
Late morning: Picking up the essentials
The crowds at Greens Beverages on Assembly Street started lining up in the morning Thursday.
By 10:45 a.m., the parking lot was teeming with South Carolina and North Carolina fans who were there to load their cars with tailgate essentials, particularly beer.
Among those picking up kegs were UNC fans Adam Williams and Jared Sink. I think its going to be pretty close as long as Jadeveon Clowney doesnt kill Bryn Renner, Sink said.
Stephen and Stephen Lipscomb, a father and son from Columbia, were planning a smaller tailgate than what they typically hosted.
He says its small, the senior Lipscomb said, but it has a TV and a generator.
Just down the road at Addams University Bookstore on Assembly Street, parking was at a premium just before lunchtime. There were long lines at the register stretching nearly to the back of the store at one point as fans of all ages poured in to snap up hats, shirts and other items to show their Gamecock spirit.
Want to pick up tailgate food at a restaurant near the stadium? Click here for a sampling of restaurants not far from Williams-Brice.
10:30 a.m., USC campus: Class as usual
On the USC campus this morning, you wouldnt know it was Game Day except for the sea of Gamecock wear.
For students like Blake Bagwell, it was like any other day of classes.
At 10:05 a.m., the junior accounting major stopped at the courtyard outside Gambrell Hall to do a little studying before his next class.
His third and final class of the day accounting gets out at 4, giving him plenty of time to hop a shuttle for some tailgating before this afternoons game.
If it was something like U101, some freshman thing, I might choose to miss class on game day, he said. But not something serious.
Football gets you through the week
Students were having breakfast at USCs Russell House about 10:30. Among them was Stephanie Saunders, dressed in a garnet tank top and long black skirt.
She has a full day of classes along with a student government meeting before the game.
Schools a priority, obviously, the junior, whos majoring in psychology and political science, said.
But football is a really nice supplement to her life at USC.
Its definitely something that gets you through the week, she said.
8 a.m.: The foodll be flying
Thursday night college football games can put a crimp in the all-day party.
At 8 a.m. in the Gamecock RV area, Dr. Anna-Kathryn Rye packed her overnight bags in the trunk of her car and prepared for a day of work at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. Shell do the same Friday morning.
Usually, the RV is a place to relax during game days. For Thursday games, the RV serves another purpose. It saves her a couple of hours of sleep she would lose if she had to drive home to Irmo after the game.
Thats what makes this perfect, Rye said. I can just spend the night here, then get up and go to work in the morning.
The only work Bill Shriner and the crew back in the northeast corner of the lot were worried about was cooking. They started with a breakfast of BLTs on toasted bread.
Come back later, said Shriner, from Santee, well have a big Boston butt on the spit, and the foodll be flying.
Tod Kornhoff drives about eight hours from Fairfax, Va., to spend every game day with this group. Hes not even a USC grad. His daughter went to school here, and when he came down to visit her on football weekends he fell in with this crowd of tailgaters. The crew was looking forward to afternoon pudding shots and an evening of watching the game on TV. Only one person in the large group actually goes in the stadium for most games.
This is what we do for family fun
A few blocks away on Bluff Road, the Kelly family James, Peggy and daughter Samantha had set up in their long-time tailgate spot 10 hours before the game.
They pull a trailer full of gear, complete with satellite TV and a makeshift bathroom. They have a sign designating it as their Bluff Road Cockaboose.
This is what we do for family fun, said James Kelly of Gilbert. We dont go to Disney World or other places like that. We spend our money on football college football and high school football.
Thursday games, with more work trucks blowing by their spot and fewer fellow tailgaters out early, have a different atmosphere. Rather than grill lunch, the Kellys were planning to walk a block to Bernies and grab some fried chicken.
7 a.m.: Calm before the (Sand)storm
A train rolled by the Gamecock RV area at 7 a.m. Thursday, serving as a wakeup call on the first game day of 2013.
But most folks in the RVs hit the snooze button. Dont worry, like the alarm clock, the trains wont give up. They keep coming throughout the day.
Even the Gamecock flags were resting in a still morning when there were enough mosquitos in the RV park to fill every seat in Williams-Brice.
A few blocks away, a pickup truck already had claimed one of the few remaining free parking spaces near the stadium, at Shop and Blaylock roads. Nobody was in the vehicle, as it apparently was holding a spot for later in the day. Most of the old roadside spots now have signs posted saying No Parking.
Attention Tar Heel fans!
A warm welcome to Columbia. Columnist Neil White has rounded up some friendly advice you might find helpful for your stay read it here .
And may the real Carolina win.