Gamecocks gunning for another trip to Atlanta

Published on June 27 at 5:02 p.m. Eastern.

By Brian Edwards

Steve Spurrier has his swagger back. Truth be told, it never really went anywhere.

After struggling with the Redskins for two years – because he didn’t have a quarterback – and then taking on the daunting challenge of turning around a South Carolina program that’s struggled since forever, Spurrier’s common sense dictated that his verbal bravado had to be lowered by a few notches.

However, after a 2010 trip to the SEC Championship Game and an 11-win campaign in 2011, Spurrier has the Gamecocks rolling. They are thriving on the recruiting trail, inking the home state’s ‘Mr. Football’ four years in a row with the signings of Stephon Gilmore, Marcus Lattimore, Jadaveon Clowney and Shaq Roland.

Assuming Lattimore is back to 100 percent after tearing his ACL midway through last season, it’s not a stretch to imply South Carolina might have the best offensive player in America (Lattimore) and the nation’s most dominant defensive player in Clowney.

Clowney only got 15-20 snaps a game as a true freshman because he was playing behind Devin Taylor, the returning senior starter who most NFL draftniks feel will be a late first-rounder or early second-rounder next spring, and Melvin Ingram, who went in the first round to the Chargers with the No. 18 pick a few months ago.

Nevertheless, Clowney still managed to produce eight sacks, five forced fumbles, 12 tackles for losses and six quarterback hurries. He didn’t even start yet still garnered SEC Freshman of the Year honors and was named a second-team All-SEC selection.

In short, he absolutely demands double-teams and has the potential to be a Lawrence-Taylor-type force. With Devin Taylor on the other side, South Carolina clearly has the country’s best 1-2 punch in terms of defensive ends and that’s bad news for SEC signal callers.

Just as former recruiting coordinator Shane Beamer, who is now at Va. Tech, deserves loads of credit for the Gamecocks’ recent success, so does former defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who replaced Larry Fedora as the new head coach at Southern Miss.

Johnson will be sorely missed after doing a masterful job with SC’s defense over the last four years. (Also, Johnson had one of the best one-liners ever at his intro presser in Hattiesburg. When asked about his energy level to take on a head-coaching job at the age of 60, Johnson said, “I’ve had no complaints from my wife.”).

As for the offense, Spurrier no longer has a knucklehead at quarterback. After Stephen Garcia screwed up for the umpteenth time and got booted from the program last year, Connor Shaw took over and played well.

Yes, Shaw has some limitations and certainly doesn’t fit the mold of pure pocket passers like Spurrier had at Florida with Shane Matthews, Danny Wuerffel, Doug Johnson and Rex Grossman. But he improved with every start and most importantly, didn’t commit many turnovers.

Shaw finished 2011 with a 14/6 touchdown-to-interception ratio, completing 65.4 percent of his passes while throwing for 1,448 yards. He also rushed for 705 yards and eight touchdowns.

Back in his days at UF from 1990-2001, Spurrier was one of the best, albeit impatient, play-callers in college football history. To his credit, the Ol’ Spur Dog has learned a new trick: Football games can be won with solid defense and a run-oriented offense that doesn’t make big mistakes.

With his unique combination of East Tennessee twang coupled with a touch of sarcasm and buckets of pride, Spurrier was back to throwing zingers this past spring. As usual, Georgia was one of his favorite targets.

When asked about facing Georgia in October instead of in Week 2 as usual, Spurrier said, “I don’t know. I sort of always liked playing them that second game because you could always count on them having two or three key players suspended.”

Ah, the barbs at the Dawgs never stop.

Speaking of UGA, its schedule last year (when South Carolina went 5-0 against SEC East foes but didn’t make it to the Ga. Dome) and this year prompted Spurrier to call for the conference to make changes, as he suggested that division records should determine who goes to Atlanta.

Georgia doesn’t have to play Alabama, Arkansas or LSU yet again in 2011. Meanwhile, South Carolina plays at LSU and vs. Arkansas. Plus, the Gamecocks’ trip to Baton Rouge is sandwiched between their home game vs. UGA and their trip to The Swamp.

With that in mind, Georgia clearly has the advantage over South Carolina (and Florida and Tennessee) from a scheduling standpoint. Even UGA’s non-conference slate is easy with Boise St. gone and Ga. Tech coming to Athens.

But South Carolina is going to beat Georgia on Oct. 6 at Williams-Brice Stadium. That certainly won’t secure a trip to the Ga. Dome, but it’ll make it a distinct possibility.

When Spurrier arrived in Columbia, his goal was simple: “We want to win the SEC and have one of those nights in the dome.”

Of course, Spurrier has ‘been there and done that.’ To be exact, he led the Gators to four Ga. Dome celebrations in 1994, 1995, 1996 and 2000.

South Carolina still hasn’t had one of those nights, but the notion isn’t nearly as far-fetched as Lee Corso once implied. One of those nights could be soon if things fall right for Spurrier and the Gamecocks.

And if that happens, I’d empty my wallet to hear the post-game zingers Spurrier has been preparing for nearly eight years.

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