As he talked Sunday about the uncertainties of his fourth South Carolina team, Steve Spurrier stood in front of a dry-erase board that listed the Gamecocks’ 12 opponents in order.
Someone had written the No. 13 at the bottom of the schedule, followed by a blank space.
After a five-game losing streak last year sank the Gamecocks’ season and their bowl hopes, no one is taking anything for granted.
A new quarterback, a banged-up tailback and memories of last year’s season-ending slide — the longest losing streak of Spurrier’s career — had the USC coach treading lightly four days before N.C. State comes to town.
“We’re trying to stay a little bit underneath the radar, whatever you want to call it, about not trying to talk too big and hopefully let our play do whatever talking needs to be said,” Spurrier said. “I don’t know if we’ve got a really good team, an average team or what. I don’t know yet.”
Spurrier should have a better idea Thursday. He believes USC and N.C. State, which went 5-7 last season in Tom O’Brien’s first year, are evenly matched.
Both feature new starters at quarterback, although Tommy Beecher is beginning his fourth year at USC while the Wolfpack’s Russell Wilson is a redshirt freshman.
Like the Gamecocks, N.C. State ended the 2007 season on a down note when its defense went south. The Wolfpack dropped back-to-back games against Wake Forest (38-18) and Maryland (37-0) and missed a bowl.
The Gamecocks’ skid prompted Spurrier to hire a pair of new coordinators in defensive chief Ellis Johnson and special teams coordinator Ray Rychleski.
“We’re hoping and believing that maybe those losses are going to help the ’08 team,” he said. “Those losses maybe got us some new coaches and maybe are going to get us over the hump. That’s the way I’m looking at it.”
Spurrier, who handed the play-calling duties to receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr., will track Beecher’s decision making and continue to monitor tailback Mike Davis. The senior from Columbia missed most of preseason camp with a shoulder injury and stomach virus.
But the key could be the play of the offensive line, a slow-starting group in Spurrier’s first three years. Despite playing without left tackle Jamon Meredith, who will miss the first two games because of an NCAA ruling, the Gamecocks’ front five all have starting experience.
Hutch Eckerson, who beat out junior college transfer Jarriel King for Meredith’s spot, started five games as a freshman in 2006 before redshirting last year.
“Jarriel King’s about the only newcomer. So they’ve been around a while,” said Spurrier. “Our offensive line does a super job offseason conditioning, weightlifting. They very seldom miss anything. So those guys are conscientious, and probably the success of our offense really depends on the guys up front.”
Defensively, USC returns 10 of 11 starters, although one of those starters will come off the bench Thursday. Fifth-year cornerback Stoney Woodson will start in place of senior Carlos Thomas, whose 20 career starts are fourth most on the team.
Sophomore safety Chris Culliver, who won a starting nod in his first season on defense, said Spurrier is right to reserve judgment on this year’s team.
“Performance is what’s done on the football field against an opponent. It’s not what’s done against each other,” Culliver said. “Yeah, we can beat up on each other all day. But if we can’t perform against another team, I’d say we are going to be average.”
But All-SEC receiver Kenny McKinley is having a hard time with the low-key expectations.
“We’ve got the players and we’ve got the talent here that we should be able to go out there and beat anybody,” McKinley said. “I can’t wait for the season to get underway. The first game really will tell us where we are.”
After the news conference, Spurrier was asked about the numbers on the dry-erase board. And the man who last year said the Gamecocks were ready to contend in the SEC suggested he could tack another game on the schedule to account for the conference championship.
“I could put 14 down there, how ’bout that?” he said. “That would be optimistic. That’s if you play.”
Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.