Gamecocks shrugging off preseason hype
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has something new to worry about - managing sky-high expectations.
He's excited as anyone that the Gamecocks are in the hunt, something he couldn't say in several of his previous six seasons.
''But we haven't done anything yet,'' the seventh-year coach said.
That hasn't stopped expectations from filling up massive Williams-Brice Stadium. More than 2,000 fans squeezed into the team's practice field for the opening of fall camp and the chance to see top defensive end recruit Jadeveon Clowney. Several thousand showed up Wednesday night to watch a practice scrimmage Spurrier didn't even open until a few hours before the start.
''I don't know that I've ever seen that many people at practice,'' Clowney said. ''Gamecock fans are special.''
And star wideout Alshon Jeffery appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated's current college preview issue.
Imagine the adulation if South Carolina lives up to the hype.
The Gamecocks had a landmark season in 2010, beating SEC East heavyweights Georgia, Tennessee and Florida in the same season for the first time ever.
They had a stunning victory over then-top ranked Alabama, the first time South Carolina beat a No. 1-ranked opponent. They ended a 0-12 record by winning at The Swamp and took their second straight over rival Clemson for the first time in 40 years.
But the teams' flaws were exposed in big ways in their next two games. The Gamecocks were torched by Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton and national champion Auburn in the SEC title game, 56-17. Then they lost to Florida State, 26-17, in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Their 9-3 regular season was diminished after their postseason showings, Spurrier said.
He doesn't want that to happen again.
Despite near daily accolades, the offensive linemen haven't been caught up in the hype, says position coach Shawn Elliott. The players are older and understand that championships are won by what happens in the field, not by what's printed up in August.
''We've been focused on what we have to do to improve,'' he said.
Likewise, when some players tried to get Jeffery to smile about being on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the junior wanted none of it.
''We brought it up in the locker room,'' said receiver Ace Sanders. ''But he wanted to come out to practice like always and get ready to play.''
There've been too many examples of South Carolina success followed by inexplicable losses. The team went 6-1 and reached No. 6 in the country in 2007 before losing their last five games and missing the postseason completely. The rollercoaster even showed itself last season when the Gamecocks followed their Alabama upset with a second-half collapse at Kentucky the next week in a 31-28 defeat.
''We've got a ways to go, as we all know,'' Spurrier said.
It's easy to see why South Carolina's star has risen so quickly.
Jeffery set school records with 88 catches for 1,517 yards. His next 100-yard receiving game - Jeffery had eight of them in 2010 - will break a tie with the Seattle Seahawks' Sidney Rice for that South Carolina mark.
Sophomore tailback Marcus Lattimore, an SEC preseason first-team pick like Jeffery, was the SEC's freshman of the year last fall after rushing for 1,197 yards. His 19 touchdowns set another school mark.
Spurrier said the Gamecocks hadn't run well at all until Lattimore showed up last season.
His success perhaps locked down Spurrier's newest young acquisition in Clowney, a 6-foot-6 end considered the country's top recruit who passed up Alabama to join the Gamecocks. There have been several times Spurrier's noted that none of South Carolina's offensive linemen could slow Clowney from reaching the backfield.
''He realizes he has a long way to go, so he's practicing hard,'' Spurrier said. ''We definitely plan on getting him a lot of action from the first game on.''
That's still more than two weeks away when the Gamecocks take on East Carolina in Charlotte, N.C. Until then, South Carolina will forget about the promise and prepare for the Pirates.
Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said they've seen signs that the Gamecocks are mature enough to handle the expectations.
''Whether they totally not believe them, that remains to be seen,'' Ward said.