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July 17, 2012At one point along the path of television interviews that all the coaches at Southeastern Conference Media Days run like a gantlet, Steve Spurrier quipped, in classic Steve Spurrier fashion, about the toughness of the SEC.
"It's easier to win the national championship than the Southeastern Conference," Spurrier said. "Just ask Nick Saban."
As expected, Spurrier got a laugh and no one answered with the obvious point that it's a tough hypothesis to test at South Carolina, which has never won either. That isn't a shot at Spurrier, who has won both and can say whatever he pleases, or even at the Gamecocks, who seem to be gradually heading in the right direction.
The Spurrier experiment in Columbia is sort of like what would have happened if, after World War II, George Patton had left the United States Army and taken command of the Belgians. He would still have been a great general, but he'd have had a tougher time winning battles. It is the same with Spurrier.
Still, it is fair to say this is the golden age of South Carolina football, a fact that illustrates both what Spurrier has achieved and what he must overcome. Two years ago, the Gamecocks made it to the SEC Championship Game, although they were rudely cuffed by Auburn that year.
They went undefeated against East Division opponents again last year but missed a return trip to Atlanta (and another likely roughing-up by LSU) because of a tougher cross-divisional schedule than Georgia, a situation that exists again this year.
"You think I made that schedule?" he asked rhetorically. "If I had, Georgia would be playing LSU and we'd be playing Ole Miss."
If a few things go right, South Carolina could easily be back in Atlanta, although Georgia will probably be the media pick to win the East.
What needs to go right for South Carolina? Conner Shaw needs to be mature and steady at quarterback - Spurrier doesn't need a great quarterback to win, but he does need a Spurrier-friendly quarterback, which Stephen Garcia spent the last few years diligently refusing to be and making Spurrier pay for crazy.
Marcus Lattimore - who Spurrier says has "rehabbed beautifully" - needs to be back in the form that made him the sturdiest SEC back this side of Trent Richardson. In a scenario dripping with Alabama connections, former UA defensive back Lorenzo "Whammy" Ward needs to step in seamlessly and replace the former Gamecock defensive coordinator (and two-time Alabama assistant) Ellis Johnson.
"Lorenzo Ward and I are alike in the way we think defenses should be called," Spurrier said.
That's what Spurrier wants, so he can spend his time and creative juices on offense.
Ward has good talent on defense, although the most recognizable name may just be blossoming. Jadeveon Clowney was the nation's highest-ranked recruit 18 months ago but only showed flashes of dominating form last season.
"We held him back some," Spurrier said. "We need to let him go this year. Look for him to play more."
Will all those variables fall into place for South Carolina this year? Maybe not, but one has to think that after 100 years, South Carolina is due for some lottery-level luck - and Spurrier did nothing to discourage that sort of thinking.
"We are at South Carolina to win championships," he said. "We aren't going to shy away from that. Our expectations are high, but we know we could fall flat."
That is the usual pattern for the Gamecocks, but recently, the pratfalls haven't been as painful. Spurrier clearly seems driven to win one more SEC title ,and while you can't make South Carolina the favorite, you can't entirely dismiss it, either.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.