Ole Miss had beaten South Carolina five straight times until last season. That was when the Gamecocks rolled into Oxford and rolled out with a 31-24 upset over the Rebels, who had just knocked off Florida the week before in Gainesville.
It was a game Rebel head coach Houston Nutt continues to say his team didn't handle well, coming off the shocking headliner against the Gators. The Rebels only lost one more game, the following week at Alabama, before winning their final six, including the Cotton Bowl.
South Carolina, meanwhile, stood 7-3 at one point but went on to finish 7-6, including a loss to Iowa in the Outback Bowl.
This season the Gamecocks are considered by most as a third-place SEC East team, behind Florida and Georgia. USC returns five starters on offense and six on defense.
South Carolina has averaged seven wins a season the past four years. But with a small senior class on this year's squad, fifth-year Coach Steve Spurrier said that could pose a problem at some level.
"We thought we'd do a little bit better, but it hasn't worked out," the veteran SEC head coach said of his tenure at USC so far. "We're starting a new four-year stint with a lot of new coaches and hopefully a lot better attitude on our team. We only have seven seniors on the team this year, so obviously four or five years ago we thought our recruiting was pretty good. Maybe it just hasn't worked out."
The focus now is on 2009 and building on the foundation that's been started.
"We hope to do better," Spurrier said. "We're making progress. We're getting national recruit type players that maybe we used to not get. We believe we're heading in the right direction now."
They'll head that way with redshirt sophomore quarterback Stephen Garcia at the controls. Garcia, 1-2 as a starter in 2008, is the only Gamecock signal-caller with any Division I experience at all.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder completed 53 percent of his passes for 832 yards and six touchdowns but with eight interceptions. He is also the team's returning rusher with 198 yards and two touchdowns on 70 carries.
Only Steve Spurrier, Jr., the passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach, returns on the offensive side of the ball. The new offensive coaches were brought in to jump-start the Gamecock rushing attack that was a meager 96th in the nation last fall.
Two of USC's seven scholarship seniors are along the offensive front – guard Lemuel Jeanpierre (6-4, 294, 3L) and center Garrett Anderson (6-4, 307, 3L). With two fifth-year starters gone from last season (Jamon Meredith and Justin Sorenson), competition from spring will continue along the offensive line.
The Gamecocks are young at tailback with junior Brian Maddox (5-11, 224, 2L) emerging from spring as the probable starter. The fullback position is in capable hands as junior captain Patrick DiMarco (6-0, 243, 2L) has seen significant playing time the past two seasons.
Like the tailback position, USC is young at receiver. Moe Brown (6-0, 183, 3L) is the lone senior scholarship receiver on the roster. He caught 30 passes last season including seven against Georgia. Junior Weslye Saunders (6-5, 280, 2L) is the only experienced tight end on the squad.
Defensively South Carolina's line appears to be the strength of that side of the ball. Two junior defensive ends - Cliff Matthews (6-4, 249, 2L) and Clifton Geathers (6-8, 281, 2L) – could be as good as any twosome in the SEC at the end positions. The middle of the line is anchored by fifth-year senior Nathan Pepper (6-1, 300, 3L) and junior Ladi Ajiboye (6-1, 285, 2L).
The linebackers are led by senior Eric Norwood (6-1, 252, 3L), who is the SEC's active leader in both sacks and tackles for loss. The Gamecocks have some holes to fill at the corners, but only one sure starter appeared to emerge after spring – sophomore Akeem Auguste (5-10, 180, 1L). At safety, junior Chris Culliver (6-0, 190, 2L) heads that group after recording 60 tackles and three interceptions last fall.
On special teams, junior punter Spencer Lanning returns after averaging 42.1 yards per kick last season. One of the nation's best placekickers, Ryan Succop, is gone, and Lanning is the odds-on favorite to add those duties as well.
Spurrier, who changed the face of SEC football nearly 20 years ago at Florida, admitted after two decades in the league that change is inevitable. He believes he and his staff are keeping up with the times.
"Yeah, we've changed quite a bit," he said. "We're probably at least 50 percent in the shotgun now. We still think there's a place for running straight at people and play action passes. The draw play has been our best running play and still is probably. So we try to do both. We try to get in the shotgun and run some spread offense, as well as underneath."
Steve Spurrier is the only head coach who is still a head coach in the SEC from when he began at Florida in 1990. That should tell you South Carolina will always have a chance for success as long as he is leading the troops.
With veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson in his second season heading up that side of the ball, and a host of new offensive coaches on staff, Spurrier proves time and again he is willing to keep up with the landscape of college football.
That being said, averaging seven wins a season is only good enough at most schools for a certain period of time. Spurrier has the bio, and Gamecock fans are loyal.
With a schedule that begins at North Carolina State and ends with Clemson, along with a host of tough SEC teams on there, including SEC West contenders Ole Miss and Alabama, 2009 will be a challenging season for USC.
Spurrier said the Gamecocks always seem to be the fourth pick preseason in the SEC East. This year they are ahead of Tennessee and in third place.
"Seven years prior to this one, we were picked fourth," he said. "So now we're third."
Getting to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game remains a thus-far elusive goal for South Carolina.
Scouting the Opponents: South Carolina
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