COLUMBIA -- After making gradual progress in his first two seasons at South Carolina, Steve Spurrier is thinking big for Year Three.
Spurrier, who won six SEC titles at Florida, has set the conference championship as the Gamecocks' goal for 2007. With an 8-8 SEC mark the past two years, Spurrier realizes title talk will be little more than idle words until the Gamecocks defeat the beasts of the East on a consistent basis.
"Until we start beating Georgia, Tennessee and Florida and some of those big schools, we're still right where we've always been, really. We've not escaped the middle of the Eastern Division," Spurrier said this week. "We've still got a lot of work to do."
Three weeks before the start of preseason practice, The State examines five things that could lead to Spurrier's dream season and five things that could turn that dream into a nightmare.
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• 1. Blake Mitchell plays like an All-SEC quarterback.
Spurrier predicted an all-conference campaign for Mitchell last season. By the third week, however, Mitchell was benched in favor of Syvelle Newton. After sitting for seven weeks, Mitchell returned to play some of the best football of his career.
Now in his third season running Spurrier's Cock 'n' Fire offense, the fifth-year senior has no excuses for making bad reads or forcing throws into coverage. Mitchell was considered one of the nation's top quarterback prospects when he left LaGrange, Ga. Five years later, he has a final chance to live up to the billing.
• 2. The offensive line develops chemistry in August.
It was midseason before the Gamecocks decided who their best linemen were in 2005 and '06. That process must be accelerated if USC is serious about contending in the East.
Justin Sorensen and Jamon Meredith look solid at the tackle spots, and Spurrier is high on guard Lemuel Jeanpierre, who moved from defensive tackle in the spring. The key will be the play of center Web Brown and whoever fills the other guard slot; Kevin Young and Garrett Anderson are among the top candidates.
• 3. A receiver emerges to complement Kenny McKinley.
McKinley, who caught 51 passes for 880 yards and five touchdowns in 2006, is fast and fearless in the slot. But the junior has never faced the aggressive coverages he will see in the absence of Sidney Rice.
The Gamecocks don't need Jared Cook, Freddie Brown or an incoming freshman to put up Rice-like numbers. But they need someone to develop as a big-play threat -- true freshman Chris Culliver comes to mind -- to keep safeties from creeping up and disrupting the Gamecocks' run game.
• 4. The defense creates more turnovers.
USC defensive backs got their hands on a lot of passes in '06, but often could not come down with the interceptions. The Gamecocks were tied for 78th nationally with 21 takeaways and failed to score a special teams or defensive touchdown.
Two things will happen if the rebuilt defensive line produces more momentum-swinging plays: It will give coordinator Tyrone Nix's unit a swagger and shorten the field for the Gamecocks' offense.
5. Spurrier figures out a way to beat Georgia
The Gamecocks put themselves in early holes in the East the past two years with slow starts. USC has yet to win a September conference game under Spurrier (the victory at Mississippi State last season was on Aug. 31).
It gets no easier this year with September trips to Georgia and LSU. History shows that good things happen to the Gamecocks when they beat the Bulldogs (see 2000 and '01). Spurrier must take advantage of an inexperienced Georgia defense that still will be in search of an identity on Sept. 8.
1. Mitchell is injured and misses significant time
Unlike last season, there is no Newton waiting in the wings if Mitchell struggles or gets hurt and Spurrier wants to take the offense in a different direction. Tommy Beecher and Chris Smelley are pocket passers who have yet to demonstrate they are ready for the SEC scrums.
Despite his off-the-field indiscretions that cost him 15 spring practices, many observers believe that freshman Stephen Garcia has the physical and mental make-up to succeed at this level. But he would benefit from a year of seasoning behind Mitchell.
2. The freshman receivers are not the quick fix as hoped
After a disappointing spring showing by JUCO receiver Larry Freeman and the other upperclassmen, USC is counting on one or more of its incoming freshmen to contribute immediately. On paper, the list of candidates (Culliver, Jason Barnes, Joseph Hills, et. al.) looks promising.
But there is no guarantee that Culliver will make a smooth transition from running back to receiver or that Barnes will match the success he enjoyed at Charlotte's Independence High School.
3. Jasper Brinkley makes 107 tackles again
The middle linebacker racked up twice as many stops last season as the Gamecocks' No. 2 tackler, outside linebacker Marvin Sapp (51). If such a disparity exists again this season, it likely means that USC's front four are not getting off blocks.
Brinkley is a hit machine who was snubbed last year by the conference coaches, left off the All-SEC first team. But after offseason shoulder surgery, it would benefit everyone on the Gamecocks' defense if Brinkley gets help.
4. Special teams remain not-so special
Spurrier has tried a little of everything to improve the special teams play. At midseason last year he put several defensive starters, including the Brinkley brothers, on special teams for a couple games. During the offseason, he hired Shane Beamer, son of Virginia Tech coach and special teams guru Frank Beamer, to breathe life into the special teams units.
But it will come down to finding a returner with speed and vision and blockers willing to sell out their bodies if the Gamecocks hope to return a punt or kickoff for a touchdown for the first time under Spurrier.
5. USC comes up empty in Athens and Baton Rouge
The SEC schedule-makers did the Gamecocks no favors by sending USC to the bayou two weeks after its trip to Georgia. If USC could manage a split in those games, the Gamecocks should be in the thick of the SEC race following games against Mississippi State, Kentucky and Vanderbilt (sandwiched around an Oct. 13 game at North Carolina).
Though the Gamecocks could salvage a successful season following an 0-2 SEC start, they likely would have to run the table to have a shot at Atlanta.