College Sports

2007 mania can now begin

Football fever seldom takes a holiday among University of South Carolina fans, and the 2007 mania now can begin in earnest. Permission is granted to dare to dream.

As if the faithful needed encouragement, coach Steve Spurrier officially signaled the start of an avalanche of anticipation at his mid-summer press conference Monday.

The start of any season in any sport comes with a sense of expectation, but football arrives with a different twist in Carolina Country this year. In the third season of Spurrier's reign, no longer will fans look at the schedule and wonder how far the program has advanced. Rather, they will wonder how far the Gamecocks can go.

Loyalists who once would rejoice over close battles and near-misses against Southeastern Conference heavyweights now bemoan missed opportunities against the Tennessees and Floridas. Playing well and falling short will no longer satisfy their thirst for success.

This time of year -- more than three weeks before the start of fall practice and with the opening game almost two months away - visions of sugarplums often overshadow reality. Memories of past failures vanish and yesteryear's accomplishments become magnified, factors that prompt many coaches to throw the caution flag.

Spurrier took the opposite stance.

'We're not too far off'. Oh, he repeatedly noted the Gamecocks must prove themselves against the usual suspects in the SEC East. Too, based on past performances, he could not fault preseason forecasts that rank Carolina in its usual position - behind Florida, Tennessee and Georgia and ahead of Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

But he did nothing to douse the fires of optimism. Instead, he fanned the flames.

"We're not too far off; we're capable," he said.

Unlike last year this time, he did not need to send a message through the media that too many players had missed the so-called voluntary summer workouts.

"We've heard (the sessions) are going a lot better," Spurrier said. "We don't have 100 percent, but this is the best in three years. Hopefully, that will pay dividends in those close games and carry us through those tight games."

Ah, yes, those close games, the warts on Carolina's 8-5 record in 2006. The Gamecocks lost to Auburn, Arkansas and Tennessee each by a touchdown and to Florida by one point, results that meant a 3-5 conference mark.

"We didn't get (opponents') attention" with that conference record, he said. "We're still where we were. We're not a team to be picked higher until we beat those (top) teams."

But he believes that will happen -- soon.

"We have raised our goals," he said. "We think we can play with everybody."

Don't listen to the doubters. Spurrier used Crystal Garrett, a USC student and the newly crowned Miss South Carolina, to illustrate the attitude his football team will take into the season.

"What intrigued me in the write-up today, she said, 'I did not listen when people told me I could not sing. I knew I had a God-given talent,' and she proved it," he said. "She had an asthma condition as a child, and she did not listen when people told her she could not do something.

"That's our motto around here in football. We don't need to listen to people who tell us we can't do anything. We certainly can."

Primary concerns center on the wide receiver positions, where the losses included record-setting Sidney Rice, who left of the pros after his sophomore season, and the offensive line. His wish list includes improved special teams play, some scores from defense and special teams and an end of Carolina's unwanted "tradition" of surrendering big yardage in third-and-long situations.

Attitude matters, too.

"Believing we have a chance will make a difference," Spurrier said. "We're about where we hoped to be at the start of our third season, but we're still building, too. We hope our guys come to the big games thinking we have just as much right to win" as the opponent.

"To have a big year, we will have to win games that come down to the wire."

The Gamecocks reversed the close-loss trend against Clemson last season and he sees that success as a new beginning.

"Time will tell," Spurrier said.

Until proven otherwise, let emotions run wild and passion rule.