After posting the three best consecutive seasons in South Carolina football history, Steve Spurrier looks at this year’s team and believes the potential for an even better season exists.
The Gamecocks have won 31 games, they’ve defeated a pair of traditional powers in bowl games the past two seasons, and they advanced to the SEC championship game once over that span. But they’ve yet to win a conference title and earn a berth in a BCS bowl game.
This could be that year.
The Gamecocks boast a core group of players who have played a role in many of those wins, they have a Heisman Trophy candidate in junior defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, and they play a favorable schedule that doesn’t include SEC West powers Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M.
“I hope our expectations are up there, but they’ve been very similar the last two or three years,” the USC coach said. “We’ve had a team capable of winning the SEC. It just hasn’t worked out. Who knows if it will this year or not? We’ll give it our best shot.”
After their best shots just missed the mark the past three seasons, the Gamecocks are inching closer to hitting the bullseye. But programs such as Alabama, LSU, Georgia and Florida continue to stockpile their own marksmen.
“We know we’re not favored to win it, but we think we have a team that’s capable if everything works out, some guys really come around, and we get a break or two,” Spurrier said. “That’s something we’ve not done at South Carolina, is won a conference championship, and we have hopes to do it.”
Spurrier understands that his team could fall on its face, but he likes what he sees. He points to a pair of solid quarterbacks in senior Connor Shaw and junior Dylan Thompson. He’s convinced tailbacks Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds can produce with Marcus Lattimore gone. He understands plugging holes at linebacker and safety will be critical, but it helps to have a strong front four led by Clowney that can give opposing quarterbacks fits. And he noted that this group trains like champions.
“We lost some really good players. Hopefully, the young guys who have been waiting their turn are ready to step in there and really play well,” Spurrier said. “We don’t have a lot of preseason All-American guys except for Jadeveon, but we’ve got a lot of really good players.”
Shaw, who is 17-3 as a starter, believes this team can succeed at the highest level if it can avoid injuries. He likes how the players have bonded as they pursue greater goals.
“Last year when we hit the gauntlet in the meat of the schedule, we got a lot of guys banged up. We’ve got to stay healthy and stay focused and just take it one week at a time,” Shaw said. “No doubt with this team, our camaraderie and chemistry is the best it’s ever been. We work well together, and this team is capable of some big things this year.”
Last season, the Gamecocks jumped into the driver’s seat in the Eastern Division with a win against Georgia but consecutive road losses to LSU and Florida doomed their chances of reaching the championship game. Even with the losses of key players such as Lattimore, center T.J. Johnson, and receiver Ace Sanders on offense and safety D.J. Swearinger, defensive end Devin Taylor and spur DeVonte Holloman on defense, Shaw is convinced the talent is in place to be better if the new starters embrace the standards and the attitude of their predecessors.
“We always have these high-profile athletes leave to go to the NFL, and we always have guys who step up (the following season),” Shaw said. “We’re going to have some new faces but they’re guys who know how to handle the roles and the responsibility.”
Junior wide receiver Bruce Ellington believes a winning mentality builds with each successful season. He points to Alabama’s ability to rise to the challenge and win the biggest games, something he hopes the Gamecocks can do this season.
“We look back and see we went 11-2 two years in a row, so it’s time to advance and time to move up,” Ellington said. “We’re trying to take the next step to the SEC championship.”
When the Gamecocks reached that level in the 9-4 season of 2010, they were dominated by eventual national champion Auburn in the SEC title game before losing a bowl game to Florida State. Although they didn’t make it to Atlanta the past two seasons, they won the Capital One Bowl against Nebraska and the Outback Bowl against Michigan to cap their best seasons ever.
When practice starts the second day of August, Spurrier will begin to get a handle on whether this team can make the leap to the next level.
“We’ll find out if we have a real good team, an outstanding team or an average team,” he said.