South Carolina fell victim to misdirection last year at Clemson - and it had nothing to do with the Tigers' running game.
With several players eyeing the NFL and a couple of coaches on their way out, the Gamecocks dropped a lackluster 31-14 decision at Death Valley that was their sixth loss in the past seven games against their rivals.
"They just flat beat us last year. We were sort of in disarray, had a lot of guys going in different directions, I guess. Maybe coaches, too," USC coach Steve Spurrier said Tuesday. "So you look back on some games and say, shoot, you just got beat, and you move on."
Two of Spurrier's assistants moved on the following day when recruiting coordinator David Reaves joined brother-in-law Lane Kiffin's Tennessee staff, and Spurrier fired longtime offensive line coach John Hunt.
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Spurrier also questioned the effort level of a few of the Gamecocks' NFL draft hopefuls in the Clemson game. He benched tight end Jared Cook for most of the second half because he did not think Cook went hard after a Chris Smelley pass that was intercepted.
A year later, Spurrier believes the attitude in the locker room is more positive despite the USC's current three-game losing streak. The Gamecocks (6-5) are bowl eligible for the fifth time in as many seasons under Spurrier and have a shot at a Chick-fil-A Bowl berth with a win Saturday.
"Our team is together. Shoot, all of us are gonna be here another month practicing for some bowl game," Spurrier said. "So I think we all like each other, all the coaches. I certainly hope and plan that all the coaches are gonna be back next year."
Defensive tackle Nathan Pepper, a fifth-year senior from Greenville, said last year's loss at Clemson was "embarrassing" because the Tigers "had their way" with the Gamecocks. Clemson scored 24 first-half points off three Smelley interceptions and a blocked punt to jump to a 24-0 lead.
Though Pepper refused to blame the loss on players who were talking about bolting early for the NFL, he said the fact that there are no such distractions this year is beneficial.
"We have guys that are committed to coming back next year, not even talking about leaving early. There's not any rumors that I've heard about people leaving," Pepper said. "That definitely helps us focus on the game."
Strong safety Emanuel Cook left school last year after he was ruled academically ineligible for the Outback Bowl, and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn declared for the draft minutes after the bowl game. Jared Cook announced a week later he was giving up his final year of eligibility to turn pro.
Among the Gamecocks' draft-eligible juniors this year, coaches expect defensive end Cliff Matthews and safety Chris Culliver to be back next season. Tight end Weslye Saunders could explore his NFL options.
Of more immediate concern to USC is solving a Clemson team that has gone 3-1 against the Gamecocks since Spurrier arrived before the 2005 season. Not long after replacing Lou Holtz, Spurrier had the "Beat Clemson" signs at Williams-Brice Stadium removed, fueling the perception from some fans that Spurrier did not put enough emphasis on the rivalry.
But fifth-year center Lemuel Jeanpierre said the Clemson game never has been downplayed.
"Offseason you hear Clemson. In-season you hear Clemson," Jeanpierre said. "It is a big rivalry."
"Sometimes, the fans think we don't dislike them enough, we don't hate them enough," Spurrier said. "It's how you play the game that determines the winner. So hopefully we're going to get our best effort this week."
Fans figure it has to be better than last year.