Vanderbilt’s last football game ended on the final day of 2011.
Since that moment, coach James Franklin said, the Commodores have been thinking about South Carolina. The Gamecocks open the season on Aug. 30 at Vanderbilt.
“Our kids were unbelievably motivated all offseason knowing the type of game we are going to open up with,” Franklin said.
Franklin, who is entering his second year, and the Commodores believe the game will provide them an opportunity to prove they belong in the SEC.
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“We’ve got a hall of fame coach coming into our stadium with a top 10 opponent,” Franklin said. “What a tremendous challenge and an even bigger opportunity that is for our program, so that’s our focus.”
Franklin’s enthusiasm has his players believing they can compete in the conference, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said.
“He’s got his guys believing at Vandy,” Spurrier said. “They believe they can beat everybody they play. Play with a lot of first and energy, just like Coach Franklin has.”
Touchbacks on kickoffs will be easier to come by in the SEC this year, but they’ll have a less desirable result. The biggest of college football’s rules changes this season is that the ball will be kicked off from the 35-yard line rather than the 30, and touchbacks will come out to the 25-yard line rather than the 20.
The change is intended to increase player safety, said Steve Shaw, the league’s director of officials, by increasing touchbacks, but Shaw acknowledged it might have the opposite effect because some coaches might choose to kick higher, shorter kicks and try to pin their opponents deeper by not kicking into the end zone.
Florida spent time this spring practicing directional kicking, coach Will Muschamp said.
Other rule changes include: allowing players to fair catch high-bouncing onside kicks, penalizing players for continuing with a play after their helmet comes off and removing the player from the field for one play if his helmet comes off, giving punt returners 1 yard of space to catch the ball and forbidding defenders from leaping over punt blockers.
“These rule changes are all rooted in player safety,” Shaw said.
QB ON RADAR
Junior quarterback Connor Shaw, who has won eight of his nine career starts, was named Wednesday to the watch list for the Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award. Shaw has completed 66 percent of his passes for 1,671 yards, 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions in two season with the Gamecocks. He is one of 34 players named to the watch list.
The media's predictions on how the SEC standings will shake out this season are revealed Thursday morning.
Players aren't ready to declare the SEC East a two-team race between South Carolina and Georgia.
“There’s no clear way to say that,” USC receiver Ace Sanders said. "It's tough to go into Florida and beat Florida. You have to consider everybody when you have the conversation on who's the best in the East."
Sanders pointed out other teams that can make a case as being SEC East contenders, including Florida, Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
“I’m fine with flying under the radar," Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers said. "Within our locker room, we have 100 percent confidence that we’re going to compete for the SEC title.”
When Mississippi State offensive lineman Gabe Jackson worked out this summer, he thought a lot about South Carolina. The Bulldogs led South Carolina for most of their game last season before giving up the game-winning touchdown with 3:50 remaining in the game.
“The closest games you lose hurt the worst,” Jackson said. “That’s always in the back of my head when I work out or run. I think about that, and I think I can make a difference.”
Arkansas is not bemoaning the loss of the Gamecocks as a permanent opponent on the schedule. The Razorbacks and South Carolina were paired as cross-divisional rivals when they entered the SEC together in 1992, but that relationship will end after this season as Arkansas picks up Missouri and South Carolina takes on Texas A&M as a yearly foe.
“South Carolina, I don’t know if that makes total sense just from a geographical standpoint,” Arkansas coach John L. Smith said. “I think Missouri makes more sense.”
Linebacker Tenarius Wright said none of his teammates considered the Gamecocks a true rival. The Razorbacks have beaten South Carolina three times in a row and in five out of the last six meetings.
“We just took it as another game, another battle,” Wright said. “We were their homecoming game (in 2010) and that motivated us a lot. This past year, we just basically went out and dominated them.”
-- Staff writer Dwayne McLemore contributed to this report.