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July 26, 2007

Spurrier looks to change Gamecocks' history

HOOVER, Ala. Either hope or despair can be gleaned from history.

In Columbia, S.C. the prevailing emotion depends on which history book is opened.

For example, the South Carolina football record book should be read under the influence of Prozac or some other mood-altering substance to combat the gloom and depression which will inevitably set in.

The Gamecocks have won one conference championship in more than a century of organized football. Here, have a Kleenex.

"The history there is not all that super-duper," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said, stating the obvious. "In 1969 South Carolina won the ACC. That's the only championship in 110 years of football."

There is the despair. Now, for the hope.

Spurrier's biography reads like the latest self-help manual, inspiring euphoric feelings and the belief that, yes, chicken salad indeed can be made out of the "Chicken Curse."

After all, Spurrier won the ACC championship in his third season as head coach at Duke. Yes, that Duke.

And what a coincidence, he's entering his third season at South Carolina.

So, can the Gamecocks who were mysteriously vexed with the "Chicken Curse" during the one-win campaign of 1963, duplicated that lean victory total in 1966 and 1998 and suffered through a winless 1999 win a championship in their third season under the 62-year-old Spurrier?

He believes they can.

"Going into our third year at South Carolina, we believe our talent level has improved enough that we can realistically tell our players, 'We've got a chance, fellas,'" Spurrier said. "We're going to set a goal to do it.

History Lesson
Here's a look at Steve Spurrier's collegiate coaching career and how the teams he coached fared before and after he arrived. The years of Spurrier's tenure are in parenthesis:
Duke (1987-1989)
Before Spurrier: The Blue Devils had not managed a winning season in four years before Spurrier took over in 1987. They had not won more than six games in 24 seasons.
Under Spurrier: Duke went 20-13-1 with Spurrier as head coach, posted at least seven victories twice and won the ACC championship in 1989 with an 8-4 record.
Florida (1990-2001)
Before Spurrier: Prior to Spurrier's arrival, Florida had never won more than nine games in a season and had never won an SEC championship. Under Spurrier: Florida won at least 10 games in six straight seasons and nine times in his tenure there. He led the Gators to six SEC championships and a national championship.
South Carolina (2005-present)
Before Spurrier: The Gamecocks had posted 16 victories in their last three seasons under Lou Holtz and never finished higher than third in the SEC East. They have not won a conference championship since winning the ACC in 1969.
Under Spurrier: South Carolina is 15-10 in its two seasons with Spurrier as head coach. The Gamecocks finished tied for second in the SEC East in Spurrier's first season.
"I know we're not going to be picked, and we shouldn't be picked. But we need to come to the ballpark of these other teams and believe we're just as good."

There are reasons to believe.

The Gamecocks return six offensive and 10 defensive starters from last season's 8-5 team that defeated Houston in the Liberty Bowl.

Quarterback Blake Mitchell, a fifth-year senior whom Spurrier benched for several games last year, is among the returning starters, will be a key figure in whether the Gamecocks are legitimate contenders.

"We need a running game and we need pass protection. When those two things happen (Mitchell) can be very productive," Spurrier said. "He's capable of taking us a long way."

South Carolina, which returns starting tackles Jamon Meredith and Justin Sorensen, was merely average in both categories last season. The Gamecocks were 49th nationally in rushing with a 144.3-yard average and allowed 24 sacks to rank 52nd.

Still, they were not a long way from challenging for the SEC East championship. Four of their five losses were by a touchdown or less, including a 17-16 defeat to eventual national champion Florida in Gainesville that wasn't settled until a last-second blocked field goal attempt.

A little more experience could equate to a lot more success this season.

"We were close last year, but we've been working hard this off-season," senior linebacker Jasper Brinkley said. "It's time for that hard work to pay dividends. We're looking to take advantage of the opportunities we have and to compete this year."

While South Carolina returns an experienced team, most of its rivals in the SEC East Division have significant holes to fill.

Florida lost quarterback Chris Leak and nine defensive starters. Tennessee must replace its top three receivers and most of its secondary. Georgia has only three starters back on defense.

The numbers suggest this could be South Carolina's year to be the nation's surprise team.

"It's definitely exciting," senior tailback Cory Boyd said. "The young guys that come in can really look forward to doing things for the first time. He's (Spurrier) always big on trying to do things for the first time and trying to have bigger goals. You can't really win something unless you really install it in your mind, and I think that's what he's trying to do with us."

But mind games don't often win football games.

The schedule requires South Carolina travel to face Georgia and LSU in the first month of the season. The Gamecocks could be on the brink of falling out of the race before they're out of September.

"Hopefully, your team's ready to play early," Spurrier said. "The good teams obviously get better as the season progresses. The bad ones usually go down hill. Hopefully, we'll get better as the season goes. That's how you have a big year -- continue to improve.

"We need to get our offensive line straight before that Georgia game and go from there."

But go where? Up in the standings or down hill?

History indicates it could be either.

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

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