COLUMBIA, S.C. -- If these next three months are as lively on the field as this past month has been off the field, then maybe this is the year they’ve all been waiting on at South Carolina.
They’re accustomed to waiting in these parts, though.
As in waiting for a championship season. Waiting for one of those truly special seasons, and waiting for the Gamecocks to make a move in the SEC’s Eastern Division.
“That’s the problem. Every year around here, it’s the same thing,” South Carolina senior defensive end Cliff Matthews said. “Everybody talks about it. We don’t need to talk about what we’re going to do. We just need to go do it.”
There are more than a few reasons to believe that this is indeed Steve Spurrier’s best chance of contending for an SEC Eastern Division crown since he returned to college football in 2005 and chose South Carolina as the place where he would hopefully be able to re-write history.
It hasn’t been easy. In fact, it’s been harder than Spurrier thought. He’s lost five or more games every year he’s been here. But for perspective, his 35 wins also mark the best five-year run in South Carolina history.
Entering his sixth season in Columbia, Spurrier has 17 starters returning from a year ago. But more importantly, he likes this team’s attitude, its energy and its leadership.
Matthews is one of those leaders. In his own quiet way, he’s been a steadying influence in the locker room for the past two seasons. But with Eric Norwood gone, he’s become even more of a leader.
And when he says this team absolutely won’t be affected by what’s gone on off the field the past month, he means it.
Senior tight end Weslye Saunders is suspended for Thursday night’s game for violating team rules. Saunders has talked to NCAA investigators multiple times over the past month and a half concerning allegations that he took a trip to Miami that may have been funded by agents.
Spurrier said Saunders’ suspension had nothing to do with that investigation or the NCAA’s more recent probe into the living arrangements of several South Carolina players who were staying at the Whitney Hotel.
As many as five players -- safety Akeem Auguste, cornerback C.C. Whitlock, offensive tackle Jarriel King, guard Terrence Campbell and defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye -- could be forced to miss the Southern Miss game depending on what ruling the NCAA hands down. There’s a possibility that some of those players could also be required to miss future games.
The whole thing has hovered over the program for much of the past two weeks with some players missing practice to clear up the matter and others arriving late.
“To be honest, it doesn’t bother us at all … none of it,” said Matthews, who tied Norwood last season with a team-high seven sacks. “We’re focused. The only thing on our minds has been Southern Miss. We’re not looking at what’s behind us, and we’re not looking at what’s in front of us.
“Other people might be, but we’re not.”
Spurrier has raved about Matthews’ work ethic and the way he competes every time he’s on the field.
There’s a consistency about the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Matthews that Spurrier would like to see rub off on the whole team.
For that matter, the whole program.
The Gamecocks have won more than eight games in a season only twice in school history. And when they have had success, they haven’t been able to sustain it.
Matthews, who’s from Cheraw, S.C., doesn’t need a history lesson; nor does he want one.
He says unabashedly that an SEC championship is one of South Carolina’s goals.
“I love this team’s chemistry,” he said. “Everybody’s focused. Everybody’s hungry, and everybody’s on the same page. What we’ve got to do is stay humble, don’t beat ourselves and come prepared every week.
“One win doesn’t mean anything, no matter who it’s against. If we get a big win, we’ve got to digest it and act like we’ve won before and move on.
“We’re not going to dwell on anything this year, good or bad.”