South Carolina ready to live up to the hype

Shortly after one last shriek from the electrically charged rooster hiding inside South Carolina’s PA system triggered an end to the Gamecocks’ 35-21 upset of No. 1 Alabama last season, everything seemed to change about South Carolina’s football program.

For a moment, we looked up at the Gamecocks, wondering how far they would go and who they would leave hurting along the way.

That feeling lasted about a week as the Gamecocks went out and blew an 18-point lead to a 3-3 Kentucky team, losing 31-28, reassuring everyone that South Carolina still had a ways to go before it could be taken seriously as a title contender.

However, South Carolina rebounded and made it to its first SEC championship game, where the Gamecocks lost to eventual national champ Auburn 56-17.

South Carolina then lost in the Chick-fil-A Bowl to Florida State, ending both an encouraging and head-scratching 2010 season.

As the Gamecocks enter the 2011 season, they are the overwhelming favorites in the East, but there is still the perception that South Carolina can only go so far.

“We hear that and we’re going to keep that in the back of our heads,” safety D.J. Swearinger said. “There are a lot of people out there that said South Carolina would never win a SEC championship.

“We’re trying to stay consistent this year and we’re trying to get back to the SEC championship and redeem ourselves.”

And redeem themselves they can. Coach Steve Spurrier believes this is the best team he’s had in Columbia. If there is a team that should be getting the extra publicity, it’s this one.

“We've accomplished a few firsts, but there's plenty more for us to go after,” he said. “We feel like we've probably assembled the best group of players we've had in the seven years now that I've been there. But time will tell. Time will tell how this year's team will do.”

Time will also tell if this team can finally get over the hump of underachieving. South Carolina has seen this all before.

In 2005, the Gamecocks tied for first in the East, going 5-3 in conference play. However, South Carolina missed out on a trip to Atlanta because of a “coulda shoulda woulda game”, as Spurrier puts it, in which the Gamecocks fell 17-15 to Georgia. In 2006, they started 6-1 before losing their last five games. And Spurrier is just 1-4 in bowl games.

But players insist this time it‘s different. The mindset is different. There is more confidence, camaraderie and closeness.

“We don’t worry about that stuff. We know what we have to do and what we have to take care of,“ defensive tackle Travian Robertson said. “We try to block all of that negative talk out and do what our coaches ask us to do.

“We set our goals. Other people don’t set our goals.”

The Gamecocks return 13 starters from a year ago, including one of the nation’s best one-two punches in running back Marcus Lattimore and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Troubled quarterback Stephen Garcia is back, with supposedly a new outlook on life, and the defense is solid and should feature the league’s top pass rush.

There is no question this team has the talent to make back-to-back trips to the SEC title game, but with the expectations higher than ever, can this group keep itself in check? Can it keep from wilting under the pressure?

“We’re more experienced and more confident,” Jeffery said. “Going into this season, we’re more together and just one. This year, we are more prepared.”

One reason for South Carolina’s improved togetherness is last season’s disappointing finish. Robertson said this team rallied around the mutual disgust of the 0-2 finish. They felt they were better, and this season Robertson knows this team will be better.

“Anytime you fail or you lose, you have to think about what you did to keep winning and thinking about what you did to stop yourself from losing,” he said. “We didn’t end well, so we know we have to finish strong this year, and that’s one thing we lacked last year.”