SEC East: South Carolina

When Steve Spurrier took the coaching reins at South Carolina, many of us assumed his ego had overwhelmed his sense of judgment. We figured he'd upgrade the Gamecocks but he'd never catch Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the rugged Southeastern Conference Eastern Division.

We were wrong, and it didn't take "the ol' ball coach" long to prove us wrong. He nearly upset Georgia at Athens in his SEC opener, bowing 17-15. Weeks later he beat Tennessee 16-15 in Knoxville and clipped Florida 30-22 in Columbia.

Bottom line: Spurrier was a field goal away from sweeping the SEC East's Big Three in his maiden season with the Gamecocks. And he did so with players recruited by Lou Holtz to play a completely different system.

Like Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl, Spurrier didn't win the SEC title in his league debut but he sent a message to the other coaches: "Be afraid. Be very, very afraid."

South Carolina is my dark horse to win the SEC East this fall. The Gamecocks get UT and Georgia in Columbia, and Spurrier will be so pumped about playing Florida in The Swamp that one will seem like a home game, as well.

South Carolina lost two outstanding defensive backs (Jonathan Joseph, Ko Simpson) in the first two rounds of the recent NFL Draft. In addition, the Gamecocks are merely average at quarterback and running back. Still, they have the SEC's premier receiver in Sidney Rice. And they have a coach who showed last year he can beat teams that boast greater talent and greater depth.

South Carolina probably isn't good enough to win the SEC East in 2006, even though the division race appears wide open. But Spurrier has the Gamecocks a lot closer to championship level than most of us expected them to be in Year 2.

TOMORROW: My take on Mark Richt's Georgia Bulldogs

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