Vanderbilt looking to play spoiler vs. Gamecocks

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.

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.”