Liberty Bowl Champs Today, Bigger Goals Ahead

Following South Carolina's 44-36 victory over Houston in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, there were smiles all around in the USC locker room. The Gamecocks quieted the demons of the previous year's loss to Missouri in the Independence Bowl, and riding the momentum of a three game winning streak into the offseason, the expectations for 2007 are already beginning to climb.



Coach Steve Spurrier addressed the media following the Gamecocks victory, and while his team enjoyed the Liberty Bowl experience, Spurrier acknowledged that there will be bigger fish to fry beginning next season.

"We appreciate AutoZone and the Liberty Bowl for putting on a wonderful week for the Gamecocks. Everything's been first class, and I've enjoyed this bowl about as well as any of them. Obviously the National Championship (at Florida) was a little bit bigger, and hopefully we'll be in a little bit bigger bowl in the future, but this was a stepping stone to bigger and better things for South Carolina," said Spurrier. "(Next year) we‘re shooting to try and win the SEC. We think we've got enough players to compete if we play smart. We still don‘t play real smart all the time, but hopefully we can pick it up and be in contention for the SEC next year."

When accepting the head coaching job at South Carolina, Spurrier knew that it would take time to build the program up to the level necessary to compete for SEC Championships. In his first season, Spurrier led USC to a 7-5 record with memorable wins over conference rivals Tennessee, Arkansas, and Florida. In year two, with a younger but more talented squad, the Gamecocks suffered a number of heartbreaking defeats to ranked foes before finishing the season on a three game winning streak, including a thrilling road win over arch-rival Clemson. With eighteen starters returning from the 2006 squad, Spurrier believes his team will be ready to contend in the SEC next season.

"Eight wins is good for us right now. (We had) seven last year, and we'll shoot for nine or ten next year," said Spurrier. "We've got Blake (Mitchell) coming back and just about the entire offense. We've got to replace three offensive linemen, but hopefully we can do that. We've got about the whole defense coming back. I still believe our defense can play a lot better."

A major factor in Spurrier's decision to coach the Gamecocks was the opportunity to build a program that had not had much success in the past, and while USC has always had great fan support, the garnet and black clad faithful have had little to cheer about on the gridiron over the years. According to Spurrier, he enjoys seeing the South Carolina fans rewarded for their loyalty and support, and much like he did after USC's win over Clemson, he dedicated the bowl victory to the Gamecock fans that made the trek to Memphis.

"We have a tremendous following at South Carolina. Our people there love football, and I think around the country it's getting known that the University of South Carolina can compete at the highest level," said Spurrier. "Our fans are there. They follow the team, and we really appreciate our fans. It was neat that we could give them a victory. It‘s no fun traveling a long distance and getting your tail beat, so this win was for the fans that came to the Liberty Bowl."



South Carolina players pose with the Liberty Bowl trophy after their 44-36 victory over Houston.


Wide receiver Kenny McKinley believes USC will ride the momentum from the 2006 season all the way into next fall.

"This is way better than last year. When you come off losing like we did at the end of last year, it leaves you on a sour note going into next year, but now we're ready to hit the SEC Championship up next year," said McKinley. "This really sets the tone going into next year with everything on a positive note. I can't wait until next year now."

Liberty Bowl Offensive MVP Sidney Rice echoed McKinley's sentiments about finishing the 2006 season on a positive note and carrying the success into next year.

"It's tremendous. It gives us a lot of extra momentum going into next season," said Rice. "Last year left a bitter taste in our mouth, and Coach (Spurrier) talked about finishing ball games all through the season. That's what we wanted to do in this bowl game. We finished it, and our fans really deserved it."

Linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who finished the season with a team high 107 tackles, added that he is anxious to accomplish big things in his senior season.

"We're looking forward to taking everything step by step. First we want to win our conference, and then wherever we take it from there is whatever."

Excitement is nearing an all time high in Gamecock Country, as the pieces appear to be falling into place for the Spurrier-led South Carolina football program to become a legitimate contender in the coming years. To top off the successful 2006 campaign, USC is on track to sign a top ten recruiting class in February, inclduding several potential early impact players. While only time will tell how the Gamecocks will fare in 2007, the enthusiasm surrounding the Gamecock program heading into the offseason is a welcome change from previous years, as Spurrier and staff are undeniably changing the culture of South Carolina football.


Notes:

- Twelve Gamecock seniors finished their careers on a winning note in Memphis. The list includes CB Fred Bennett, OL Thomas Coleman, LS Ike Crofoot, OL Seth Edwards, WR Jamal Hayes, ROV Jerod June, LS Scott Morgan, FS Syvelle Newton, QB Brett Nichols, DE Keron Rouse, OL Chris White, and WR Noah Whiteside.

- South Carolina ended the season on a three game winning streak for the first time since 1973.

- With the Liberty Bowl victory, the Gamecocks have now won four out of their last five bowl trips.

- USC will return 38 out of the 44 players listed on the season ending two deep for next season.

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