- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Yes, you've read correctly: South Carolina will enter the 2011 season as the favorite to win back-to-back SEC East titles.
It's not something you hear often, if ever, but it's reality.
The Gamecocks open preseason practice Wednesday, and while the hype for this season won't literally make them faster or stronger, it has fueled this team to improve its workout habits during the offseason. There is a more positive attitude around the football program and the mindset is better heading into this season compared to last year, defensive tackle Travian Robertson said.
"It's helping us work harder and a lot of guys understand we have a great team and we have a chance to do something big this year," Robertson said. "It's helping us work harder in the weight rooms ... and in summer conditioning."
And it doesn't help that those players working harder have some decent talent to go along with it -- the best coach Steve Spurrier said he's had in Columbia. The Gamecocks return one of the fiercest defensive lines in the league, starting with Robertson in the middle and ending with two of the SEC's best in Devin Taylor and Melvin Ingram outside. And incoming freshman Jadeveon Clowney has the talent and to have an immediate impact for the Gamecocks.
Behind them, Shaq Wilson, the unquestioned quarterback of the defense, is back at the Mike linebacker position. In his only appearance last season, Wilson registered seven tackles and recovered two fumbles against Auburn. He led the Gamecocks with 85 tackles in 2009.
All-American Stephon Gilmore headlines a defensive backfield that should be much improved and DeVonte Holloman, one of South Carolina's top defensive playmakers, will play the hybrid linebacker/safety position known as the Spur.
Offensively, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better one-two punch than Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery. Lattimore burst onto the scene with a monster freshman year carrying the ball, while Jeffery proved he’s nearly impossible to cover one-on-one.
Throw in quarterback Stephen Garcia's supposed off-field transformation, and it's hard to pick against the Gamecocks.
But can they live up to the hype? We've seen them struggle with it in the past -- most recently with a loss to Kentucky after upsetting No. 1 Alabama last fall and two losses to close out the year.
The Gamecocks have heard both sides and neither really matter. Lattimore said expectations are high for the defending East champs, but the focus is on something bigger than hype -- much bigger.
"[The hype] really doesn't matter to me," he said. "The main goal is to win the national championship and that's what we plan on doing.
"We have a lot of talent coming back. We're trying to build a family. If we do that, then it's going to be hard to beat us."
17hDavid Ching and Edward Aschoff