COLUMBIA, S.C. - South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has insisted since his first day on the job that winning the SEC title is always the No. 1 objective for the Gamecocks entering the season. Only when they are eliminated from the SEC East race does the final regular-season game against archrival Clemson turn into the most important game of the year.
However, in the wake of last season's deflating 31-14 road loss to the Tigers that had Spurrier questioning the effort level, desire and focus of some of his players, assistant coaches have pointed to a renewed emphasis on the Clemson game during the Gamecock Club tour this spring.
Assistant Ellis Johnson grew up in Winnsboro, S.C., in a Clemson family, coached at Clemson for three seasons (1994-1996) and his wife is a Clemson graduate, so he understands the history and importance of the South Carolina-Clemson game to the citizens of the Palmetto State.
"As a native South Carolinian, I got caught in the middle of that rivalry quite a bit," Johnson said. "It can get pretty intense."
Now he wants to pass along that appreciation to this year's players.
"People want to know when we're going to get this Clemson game on the radar," Johnson said. "As a native South Carolinian who grew up in a Clemson family 25 miles from Columbia, I can tell you there's at least one person of our staff that gets it. And I will tell you right now our players are going to get it. I can promise you that game is on my calendar."
Spurrier is 1-3 against Clemson in his first four seasons as South Carolina coach. The only win came in 2006 when the Gamecocks rallied from a two-touchdown deficit in the second half for a 31-28 victory, the highlight of an 8-5 season that concluded with a Liberty Bowl win over Houston.
Johnson has certainly conveyed the importance of the South Carolina-Clemson game to his protégé, new defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward, who played at Alabama in the late 80s and early 90s.
Ward promises to utilize his involvement, experience and knowledge with the bitter Alabama-Auburn rivalry to teach his players about the importance of getting fired up to face the Tigers.
"I understand the importance attached to playing a rival," Ward said. "I can guarantee you, this season, the guys that don't understand that, they will know how important that game with the Tigers is and what that game is all about."
Ward, an assistant at Virginia Tech for seven seasons (1999-2005), drew an "Amen" from a crowd in Manning, S.C., when he proclaimed that "a team from the ACC should not consistently beat a team from the SEC."
"It shouldn't happen," Ward said. "I understand what the fans want and I know we have to convince the players. The biggest thing they have to understand is if they finish, we're going to get past that seven-win plateau they've been stuck on. We have to start learning from day one that we have to finish. Seven wins should not be the expectation at South Carolina. It shouldn't be. We have too many good football players on our team.
"I'm excited about next season. We'll try to surpass that seven-win plateau and we'll see what we can do about that last ballgame. We'll see if we can make it a little more special."
South Carolina will host the 107th renewal of one of college football's best rivalries on Nov. 28.