2007 Preview: USC evening the playing field

For years, the trio of SEC-Eastern division powers Florida, Georgia and Tennessee have held a decisive advantage over South Carolina in depth, talent and equally as important - mental make up. However, now heading into the third year of the Steve Spurrier era, the Gamecocks are beginning to even the playing field with a newfound combination of recruiting prowess and player development.

In Steve Spurrier's first two years at the helm in Columbia, the youth filled and undermanned Gamecocks were a team that needed to learn how to win. A championship mindset is not something that is born overnight. Spurrier knew that it would be a process when he accepted the South Carolina job, and as expected, there were growing pains along the way. Blown opportunities haunted the Gamecocks in a 17-15 gut wrenching defeat to the eventual SEC Champion Georgia Bulldogs in week two of the 2005 campaign. Demoralizing losses to SEC-West foes Alabama and Auburn over the next three weeks brought questions of just how far away the USC program was from competing at a championship level. But then something changed - the seeds of an up-and-coming young team were planted, as the Gamecocks began to buy into Spurrier's philosophy.

The second half of the 2005 season will be long remembered by Gamecock fans, as Spurrier led his team to memorable wins at Tennessee and at Arkansas, followed by a magical and historical home victory over the mighty Florida Gators. The seeds began to grow. USC's young nucleus had defied the odds, winning five consecutive SEC contests for the first time in school history, including the program's first ever victory in Knoxville and the first triumph over Florida since 1939.

Defensive lineman Chris Tucker returns a first quarter interception in South Carolina's 30-22 victory over Florida in 2005.

However, the enthusiasm was somewhat tempered after falling to arch-rival Clemson at home the following week and then blowing a 21-0 lead against Missouri in the Independence Bowl. Thus, the young Gamecocks entered the 2006 season with much to prove once again. Could they take the next step towards becoming a contender? Could they develop more consistency along the way?

The first ten weeks of the 2006 season brought frustration after frustration, as the Gamecocks suffered narrow defeats to nationally ranked foes Auburn, Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida. But somewhere in that stretch of missed opportunities, the Gamecocks evolved into a team that would seemingly no longer tolerate losing. For a program that had been marred by mediocrity throughout its history, that was quite possibly the most important breakthrough in the maturation of the South Carolina football team.

After finding ways to steal defeat from the jaws of victory multiple times throughout the year, the Gamecocks finally turned the corner and began imposing their will in the final three games of the season. With Blake Mitchell returning under center, the offensive line competing at a high level and the defense forcing timely stops, it's as if everything finally clicked for the Gamecocks in their blowout win over MTSU, their thrilling come-from-behind victory over Clemson at Death Valley and their entertaining triumph over Houston in the Liberty Bowl.

Quarterback Blake Mitchell helped lead the Gamecocks to a 31-28 comeback victory over Clemson last season.

Riding the momentum from a three game winning streak into the offseason, the now veteran Gamecocks have set their sights on contending for the SEC crown in 2007. With a total of seventeen starters returning and an infusion of young talent joining the roster from South Carolina's consensus top ten recruiting class, the face of Gamecock football is on the verge of changing forever. The same team that went toe-to-toe with the national champions on their home turf a year ago, now returns a deep, talented and experienced roster that's rallying cry is to win the first ever SEC Championship at South Carolina.

The once sparsely attended voluntary summer workouts are now filled with nearly 100-percent participation and a never before seen sense of enthusiasm and brotherhood. Healthy competition is brewing as the talented array of newcomers begin to challenge the returning players for positioning on the depth chart. A previous lack of veteran leaders is no more, as multiple upperclassmen are stepping up to that cause. The Gamecocks are developing quality depth in the trenches for the first time in recent memory. The defense, which welcomes back ten of eleven starters from a year ago, is expected to be one of the top units in the SEC. And an increased emphasis is being placed on special teams with the arrival of enthusiastic newcomer Shane Beamer to the Gamecock coaching staff.

Simply put, the culture around South Carolina football is changing. The bar is being raised. The playing field is evening.

Kickoff to the 2007 football season is only 61 days away! Stay tuned to GamecockAnthem.com in the coming weeks, as we will bring you in depth analysis of South Carolina's returning talent as well as a comprehensive look at the highly touted incoming class.

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