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Morris: Spurrier uses caution as precaution

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier speaks to the media at the SEC football media days in Hoover, Ala. on Friday, July 25, 2008.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier speaks to the media at the SEC football media days in Hoover, Ala. on Friday, July 25, 2008. AP

HOOVER, Ala.

STEVE SPURRIER THREW caution to the wind and said too much a year ago. This year, Spurrier showed his guarded side by not saying enough.

You might recall that Spurrier was his bold self in the 2007 preseason when he declared that South Carolina was ready to challenge for an SEC championship. It was not, and a five-game slide to finish the season proved that.

On Friday, while speaking at SEC media days, Spurrier changed his tune. He turned conservative.

“I probably overestimated our team last year,” Spurrier said. “I thought maybe we had made some strides, but obviously we had not.

“I probably overestimated our group a little. This year, we’re not going to talk about (an SEC championship), but it’s in the back of our minds. We’re not going to forget about that.”

When Spurrier speaks in the preseason — or, just about anytime, for that matter — there usually is some sort of psychological play involved. Through his illustrious career as a head coach Spurrier has mastered the art of gaining an advantage by playing with the minds of others.

Most have forgotten that his prediction of a season ago was aimed at his own team. Spurrier said he wanted his team to believe it could compete with Georgia, Florida and Tennessee. He said when games came down to a couple of plays at the end, USC needed to believe it could win.

Spurrier said he used the same psychological ploy during his early days as Duke’s head coach.

“At Duke University, first thing I had to do was tell those guys they were just as good as N.C. State or Clemson or whoever, and hope like heck they believed me,” Spurrier said. “Fortunately, they did.”

For awhile last season, USC believed. The Gamecocks handed Georgia one of its two losses. After seven games, USC had won six times and climbed to No. 6 in the national rankings. It proved to be a mirage. Dreams of a BCS bowl game turned to a nightmarish ending without a bowl bid.

It forced Spurrier to change his tact this season.

“We’re doing some things differently,” Spurrier repeated as he moved from room to room Friday at the Wynfrey Hotel. “We’ve got better athletes than we’ve ever had since I’ve been there. We’ve got a good-looking team. Hopefully, we can coach our guys to play like good players. If we can do that, maybe something good will happen for the University of South Carolina.”

This time, Spurrier’s message is aimed at the masses. You get the impression he likes the idea USC is flying under the radar. With the usual focus in the SEC East settled on Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, Spurrier’s club can go about finishing what it could only start a season ago.

There is one big reason to believe USC can challenge for the SEC East title this go round. The Gamecocks could field one of the top defenses in the league, after finishing ninth, ninth and 10th in total defense in Spurrier’s first three seasons.

“Hopefully, we’re going to be in the top half of the league defensively,” Spurrier said. “If we’re ever going to challenge for the conference championship, we can’t be 10th or ninth in total defense.”

Football coaches have been saying for decades that defense wins championships. Kentucky coach Rich Brooks took the SEC media days stage Friday prior to Spurrier and echoed that sentiment.

“Defense in this league is what has ended up winning championships,” Brooks said. “You look at LSU last year. They were an outstanding defensive team. Florida the year before was an outstanding defensive team. ... The best teams in this league have great defenses.”

First-year defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson inherits 10 returning starters, including linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who was named Friday to the media’s all-SEC preseason first team. Linebacker Eric Norwood and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn were named to the second team.

USC is one of five teams nationally with 10 or 11 returning starters on defense, according to Phil Steele’s preseason football magazine. Temple and Northern Illinois each return 11, and Duke and Western Michigan join USC with 10 apiece.

Unfortunately for USC, half of the SEC returns the bulk of its starters on defense. Georgia and Mississippi have nine back each, and Florida, Kentucky and Mississippi return eight each.

That is the reality of competing in the SEC. As much as USC might have improved from last season and might field a better team than a season ago, it still might not be strong enough to win a conference or a division championship.

It’s enough to make a coach like Steve Spurrier curb his liberal tongue.

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