Gamecocks hoping to handle the hype

South Carolina head football coach Steve Spurrier says he's hoping his team is prepared to handle the expectations that come with a No. 12 national ranking in both major polls.

Even a quarterback controversy can't dampen South Carolina's spirits after its run to the SEC title game last year resulted in big expectations for 2011.

The returns of Alshon Jeffery and Marcus Lattimore have a lot to do with those lofty goals as the 12th-ranked Gamecocks get set to host East Carolina in their opener Saturday night.

South Carolina is coming off a surprising year that peaked with an appearance in the SEC title game. However, a disappointing finish left the team wanting more.

After a promising 9-3 regular season, the Gamecocks lost 56-17 to Auburn in the title game before suffering a 26-17 defeat to Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Coach Steve Spurrier hopes his players are better able to handle their success this year.

"I think so far the guys are pretty levelheaded," Spurrier said. "But the fans, because we've not had a lot of success there, they're going to tell the guys how great they are. Hopefully we'll be smart enough to handle it and go from there.

"But historically we've not, so it will be a challenge to see if we can handle some preseason predictions, 'cause we've never had much of those before in the past."

One player who has particularly struggled under pressure has been quarterback Stephen Garcia, who was suspended a fifth time for "unacceptable behavior" at a life-skills seminar in April.

Garcia was partially reinstated for summer workouts in May and was allowed to resume all team activities in early August.

Although Garcia said he considered leaving the program, he was convinced to stay on by teammates, who see him as key to returning to the conference title game. Garcia threw for 3,059 yards and 20 touchdowns last year.

However, Spurrier has yet to name Garcia as his starter. Sophomore Conner Shaw had an impressive spring and Spurrier said it's been an open competition. In nine games last year, Shaw threw for 223 yards on 23-of-33 passing with one touchdown and two interceptions.

"Competing against each other has made both of them better," Spurrier said. "We'll see how the season plays out."

Spurrier added that the decision has nothing to do with Garcia's off-field problems.

"We have forgiven him of his transgressions," Spurrier said. "He's a new person, he really is. He's doing things differently. That's all history."

Whomever is under center will have one of the SEC's top receivers to throw to. Jeffery had 88 catches for 1,517 yards and nine touchdowns last year. His next 100-yard receiving game - Jeffery had eight of them in 2010 - will break the school mark previously set by Sidney Rice.

Also returning is Lattimore, who was third in the conference with 1,197 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns, earning SEC freshman of the year honors.

The biggest evidence of South Carolina's rise in the SEC may be the signing of Jadeveon Clowney. He was the country's No. 1 college prospect and bypassed Alabama and Clemson in favor of the Gamecocks.

East Carolina is looking to bounce back after going 6-7 last year, losing five of its final six games.

The Pirates were last in the FBS in yards allowed per game (478.8) and second-to-last in average points given up (44.0).

It was a disappointing decline after the team went 9-5 in 2009 and won Conference USA.

"I'm looking forward to the challenge for the defense," coach Ruffin McNeill said. "I like our preparation, thought process and schematic installation progress."

Dominique Davis will lead the offense again. He threw for 3,967 yards, 37 touchdowns and 16 interceptions last year, quickly picking up the spread offense after transferring from Boston College.

East Carolina has won two of the last three against South Carolina, with the last meeting coming in 1999. The Gamecocks lead the series 10-5.

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