COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has successfully handled high expectations for most of his college career. He knows his ninth-ranked Gamecocks will have to quickly learn the same lesson.
Excitement among South Carolina fans is at an all-time high after last season’s 11-2 season, the most victories the program’s ever produced. To achieve their goals in the Southeastern Conference, the Gamecocks have to stay focused.
That trek starts Thursday night when South Carolina opens the season at Vanderbilt.
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Spurrier hasn’t spoken much with his players about following up on success, although the Gamecocks would have to live in a plastic bubble not to feel the fan frenzy throughout the state.
The Gamecocks were picked in the preseason top 10 for the first time, the school announced a record membership for its athletic booster group and talk of SEC titles and more fills local airwaves.
For Spurrier, all the hoopla is nothing new.
He faced similarly grand expectations each of his 12 seasons at Florida, where he won six SEC titles and the 1996 national championship. He says the Gamecocks haven’t backed away from achieving bigger things.
“Every team each year sort of sets their goals and we’ve set our goals, very similar to last year,” Spurrier said. “We’re going to see if we can achieve our goals and hopefully do a little better than last year.”
And that means starting quickly against the Commodores, who have lost their past three to South Carolina but are treating this one as more than a simple starting point.
“This is the only thing that exists,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. “This is our Super Bowl. No other game exists.”
Spurrier wants that focus out of his players, too, and tries to keep South Carolina from peeking down its schedule. That in part has led to the team’s surge the past couple of seasons when the Gamecocks’ head ball coach appeared to be banging his head against a ceiling that would never break to some of the program’s biggest achievements.
The Gamecocks won their first SEC Eastern Division title in 2010, a run that included a victory over top-ranked Alabama — their first-ever triumph over a No. 1-ranked opponent. The success continued into 2011, despite a mid-season knee injury that took star runner Marcus Lattimore from the club for the final six games.
Lattimore’s been full-go since the summer and has thrown himself into contact at practices and scrimmages the past month. “Marcus is ready to carry it 25 or 30 times,” Spurrier said.
The only questions on South Carolina’s defense — ranked third in the country last fall behind LSU and Alabama — concern who’s calling the plays, not who’s making them. Coordinator Lorenzo Ward took over for Ellis Johnson, now head coach at Southern Miss. Ward has taken a more aggressive approach with the defensive game plan to force more turnovers and on-field havoc.
“We’re going to be blitzing more than we did last year because we got a different coach and he pretty much likes to go get them,” South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney said of Ward’s style.
Clowney said the players haven’t worried about what others think they can achieve this season because the Gamecocks are after those same high goals.
“We’re going to be ready,” said Clowney, who had eight sacks and forced five fumbles as a freshman.
Spurrier expects a big atmosphere at Vanderbilt with so much on the line. “Somebody said the Goodyear Blimp is even going to be there first time ever,” he said.
The coach didn’t have much trouble with Vanderbilt until 2007 when the Commodores stunned the sixth-ranked Gamecocks 17-6 to end the coach’s 14-0 mark against the SEC East rivals.
Vanderbilt followed that up a season later with a win in Nashville, its last against South Carolina.
The players’ attitudes and dedication to success have changed since then, Spurrier said.
“It’s been a fun, more fun group to coach the last year or so, just because they all seem to want to do the same thing,” the coach said. “They all seem to be heading in the same direction.”
South Carolina senior tight end Justice Cunningham likes the attention Vanderbilt’s put on this game because it shows how far the program’s come.
“I really like that a lot,” he said. “We’ve earned some respect over the years.”