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Season preview: USC eyes breakthrough year

If Steve Spurrier believes South Carolina can contend for an SEC championship this season, the outspoken Gamecocks coach is not saying so.

A year after touting USC as an SEC contender, Spurrier is taking more of a low-key approach as he begins his fourth season in Columbia.

A coach's fourth year is a popular measuring stick in college football. Spurrier and his staff have had ample time to install their systems and fill the roster with players they recruited.

With Spurrier hiring his third defensive coordinator — fourth if you count Brian VanGorder's 17-day stint — the Gamecocks' defense is changing again. But the offense remains largely the same, albeit with receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. now calling the plays.

As for the players, there are only seven remaining who signed with Lou Holtz's staff.

So this is Spurrier's program. But as last-year's season-ending, five-game losing streak revealed, it remains a program that is not yet championship-caliber.

"You guys have watched South Carolina football for a lot of years. You've seen a whole bunch of games where just a little smarter play here or just get a loose ball ... crucial penalty takes away a big play," Spurrier said at the start of preseason practice.

"If we can eliminate those and play with a little more effort, we've got a chance. We've got hope. ... That's all we've got is hope right now because we've not it done it yet."

The Gamecocks had a chance to do it last year after a 6-1 start vaulted them to No. 6 in the first BCS rankings.

But the late-season swoon — the longest losing streak of Spurrier's career — cost the Gamecocks a bowl bid and made for a long winter.

"Any time you drop five games in a row, it's terrible. You've got to think about it all offseason. It's just always on your mind. You've got a sour taste in your mouth," fifth-year tackle Jamon Meredith said.

"But right now I look around, we've got a lot of talent on this team. We've got a lot of guys that can bring a big impact. So I'm hoping everybody can pull it together, get a little confidence, a little swagger and come ready to play."

While Spurrier concedes that USC's inability to attain an elite status in the SEC remains "a little bit of a talent thing," he points to the Gamecocks' top-10 recruiting class from 2007 as a reason for optimism.

He also cites that class as the reason USC might be another year or two away.

"This is not the peak year. Our big recruiting class was two years ago, and we redshirted half of them or more. So we've got a lot of ballplayers," he said. "But we need to keep recruiting, don't get me wrong. We're probably still considered a young team."

Starting quarterback Tommy Beecher is a redshirt junior who was part of Spurrier's first USC recruiting class. Beecher's first career start will be the Aug. 28 opener against N.C. State, when he likely will surpass his passing numbers from his first three years combined.

But Beecher has veteran playmakers around him, most notably All-SEC receiver Kenny McKinley, and an offensive line that should be better than the unit that gave up 31 sacks in 2007.

Spurrier has downplayed his decision to hand off the play-calling duties to his son, noting he will be on the other end of the headset with full veto power.

Defensively, first-year coordinator Ellis Johnson inherits a group with 10 returning starters and a number of former starters on the second team.

"Our defense is ready. We've got a bunch of guys. Every position is backed up by another guy with great talent that could easily start," said fifth-year linebacker Dustin Lindsey, who started four games in 2006 but will come off the bench this year. "I can't wait to see how the season goes."

The schedule features the usual SEC muscle, with an October visit from LSU beginning a closing, five-game stretch that again figures to make or break the Gamecocks.

Spurrier, who won six SEC titles and the 1996 national championship at Florida and captured an ACC crown at Duke, has taken steps toward getting USC to Atlanta, site of the conference championship game.

He is the school's winningest coach after three years but has gone 1-2 against the Gamecocks' biggest rivals: Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Clemson.

The 63-year-old Spurrier knows if the Gamecocks are to make a run at their first SEC title, they must beat the East's "big three" more consistently.

"We've won three out of nine, simple as that," Spurrier said. "We'll always be one out of two unless we do things differently."

And while it remains to be seen whether that breakthrough comes in this fourth year, Spurrier Jr. believes his dad will get it done.

"We've still got a chance to make this a special place," he said.

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.

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