July 20, 2011

Gamecocks out to stay atop SEC East

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HOOVER, Ala. - Last season, South Carolina handled Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Tennessee en route to a surprising first-place finish in the SEC East.

This season, they must handle increased expectations.

That's a weight the Gamecocks haven't had to carry. South Carolina has just one 10-win season in its history, in 1984 under Joe Morrison. That season, the Gamecocks lost to Navy in November when they had a chance to ascend to No. 1 in the national polls.

But coming off a season in which they beat a top-ranked team (Alabama), won for the first time at The Swamp and won the East Division for the first time, anything seems possible.

"Coming into the season, we do have high expectations," star sophomore running back Marcus Lattimore said Wednesday at SEC Media Days. "We're working hard in the weight room, on the field and off the field because that's what it takes.

"We know the goals are there. We have to stay focused."

With Florida, Georgia and Tennessee appearing in a state of flux and South Carolina counting Lattimore, All-America wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and senior cornerback Stephon Gilmore among 13 returning starters, the Gamecocks are seen as favorites to win the SEC East. But is that setting them up for a major fall?

There is a big difference in being labeled a team that should win as opposed to one that could win. Instead of being the hunter, looking to pull some upsets, the Gamecocks will be the hunted, hoping to avoid being upset.

Teams unaccustomed to carrying that burden often have collapsed under the additional pressure. For example, Ole Miss was trumpeted as a threat to win the SEC West in 2009, but the Rebels buckled and finished third in the division with a 4-4 league record.

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said this team is the most talented one he has had in his seven seasons in Columbia, but he also seems uncertain of what to expect.

"You know, we lost our last two games last year, so we're not sitting around patting each other on the back too much," he said. "We got clobbered in the SEC championship game by Auburn and didn't play when the game was on the line against FSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. We've got a long way to go.

"I think it's nice to have the magazines say we've got a chance. ... Some of them are picking us to win the East. We know that Georgia, Tennessee and Florida were down last year. That's what gave us hope and probably the big reason we won the East last year. Whether or not they'll be down this year, only time will tell. You don't know. Again, we have a ways to go."

Spurrier pointed out that last season, South Carolina ranked just seventh in the SEC in total offense and total defense. That hardly suggests a dominant team.

"When we tell our players we were seventh in defense and seventh in offense, that means we're mediocre," he said. "That's what we were."

The Gamecocks also have had issues with senior quarterback Stephen Garcia, who passed for more than 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2010. But Garcia has had numerous off-field issues and was suspended during the spring.

Relying on a quarterback who has been unreliable can be a dicey proposition. In fact, Spurrier stressed Wednesday that the starting quarterback job was open.

"He may get beaten out by [sophomore] Connor Shaw," Spurrier said. "We're going to have a competition. I guess everyone assumes Stephen is going to be the quarterback if he's there. But we'll see. We'll see how Connor performs in preseason and how Stephen performs and go from there."

Still, even if there is some uncertainty at quarterback and with "mediocre" offensive and defensive play a year ago, there remain a lot of reasons for the Gamecocks to be optimistic.

The Gamecocks beat Alabama and dominated Florida and Clemson last season. Spurrier says Lattimore is the best running back in the nation and Jeffery the best receiver. For all of Garcia's issues, most programs would love to have a fifth-year senior quarterback. The defense has Gilmore and All-SEC end Devin Taylor and is adding freshman end Jadeveon Clowney, the nation's top-ranked recruit.

Perhaps most important, the players appear to have the right frame of mind.

"It's a different season, a different ballgame this year," defensive tackle Travian Robertson said. "If we play hard, we can come out on top."

Added Jeffery: "We know that we can beat the best teams in the country. We just need to finish the games strong."

Of course, saying the right things in July doesn't guarantee they will do the right things and make the clutch plays when the pressure is on in September, October and November.

"We want our guys to believe we do have a chance to win the East, to win the SEC," Spurrier said. "Hopefully, we'll be smart enough to know that it's not going to be easy and we've got to play extremely well, prepare well ... to do it. I think so far the guys are pretty level-headed.

"But the fans - because we've not had a lot of success there - they're going to tell the guys how great they are. Hopefully, we'll be smart enough to handle it."

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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