Spurrier's plan coming to fruition

Originally Published: October 12, 2012
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

Steve Spurrier knows what a championship football team looks like.

[+] Enlarge South Carolina
Gerry Melendez/The State/MCT/Getty ImagesIt's heady times in Columbia, as the Gamecocks have their highest ranking in the AP Poll in 28 years.

He coached six of them at Florida and brought the Gators their first official SEC championship in 1991.

Now he's trying to do the same at South Carolina, which has ascended to unprecedented heights the past two seasons under the Head Ball Coach.

The Gamecocks, who take on No. 9 LSU on Saturday in Tiger Stadium, own the nation's longest winning streak at 10 games, which dates back to last season.

South Carolina's No. 3 national ranking is its highest in more than 25 years, and if the Gamecocks can beat the Tigers, it will be the first time in history that they have beaten top-10 teams in back-to-back games after battering then-No. 5 Georgia 35-7 last week.

But as Spurrier has reminded everybody this week, the Gamecocks have run only half the race.

"We've got some high goals," Spurrier said.

This time, they're real goals and not some pipe dream cooked up by a South Carolina fan base that has historically been as delirious with its grandiose expectations as it's been loyal with its support of its team.

The Gamecocks are for real, and to this point, they look like the closest thing to a legitimate contender to Alabama in this league. Granted, that can all change in a matter of a week.

But whereas South Carolina was the last one standing in a mediocre Eastern Division two years ago in making its first SEC championship game appearance, this South Carolina team is equipped to do some damage.

How did the Gamecocks get here after seemingly being doomed to eternal mediocrity?

For starters, it's important to remember that they didn't get here overnight.

In Spurrier's first five seasons at South Carolina from 2005 to 2009, the Gamecocks won more than seven games only once (2006). And last season was the only time since he's been there that they didn't lose five or more games.

Spurrier has admitted that after the embarrassing 31-10 loss to Iowa in the Outback Bowl following the 2008 season, he wondered whether it just wasn't going to work.

"You sort of wonder, 'What am I doing here?'" Spurrier said.

What rejuvenated Spurrier was that next recruiting class. The Gamecocks were able to keep Stephon Gilmore and Alshon Jeffery at home, despite schools such as Alabama and USC coming into the Palmetto State and aggressively recruiting them.

The next year, South Carolina also kept Marcus Lattimore at home when he could have gone anywhere else in the country as the nation's top running back prospect.

And then last year, it was Jadeveon Clowney following suit and keeping the Palmetto pipeline churning. Clowney, one of the highest-rated prospects to come out of high school in several years, looked like an NFL player the day he walked onto campus.

Now a sophomore, he's playing like it, too.

This will always be a talented league, and by keeping its best players at home, South Carolina has significantly upgraded its talent.

In the past, the Gamecocks struggled to get the best players in their state. You could almost put together an NFL who's-who list of highly rated players who played their high school football in South Carolina and went elsewhere.

Here's the other thing: Spurrier gets a ton of credit for his brilliance as a playcaller and seeing things during the course of a game that other coaches don't see. But he's also made equally clever moves on his coaching staff.

Spurrier has made changes when he's needed to. He's replaced good coaches with other good coaches, and he's held on to valuable members of his staff.

Case in point: defensive line coach Brad Lawing. One of the more underrated assistants in the league, Lawing, in his 17th year as a South Carolina assistant, has played a huge role in the development of a defensive line that might be one of the best in the country.

But really, the Gamecocks have been good up front defensively the past couple of years, and that's a must if you're going to make any noise in this league.

Bringing in Shawn Elliott was also a key. He has been a stabilizing force with the Gamecocks' offensive line, which was a recurring problem for Spurrier at South Carolina until Elliott came aboard in 2010.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
John Sommers II/Getty ImagesKeeping elite South Carolina prospects such as Marcus Lattimore home has helped the Gamecocks take the next step in the SEC under Spurrier.

Elliott, who was promoted to co-offensive coordinator before this season, also brought the zone read package with him from Appalachian State.

Most recently, Spurrier promoted Lorenzo Ward to replace highly successful defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who took the Southern Miss head-coaching job after last season. Ward's first game in charge was a 30-13 win over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl at the end of last season. In seven games as coordinator, his defense has yet to give up more than 17 points in a game and has given up more than 13 points only once.

Spurrier said last week that Ward has simplified what the Gamecocks are doing on defense, which has made them that much more effective. It's a defense that has made very few mistakes to this point this season.

Spurrier said this week that it's still to be determined what kind of team the Gamecocks have. After the trip to LSU comes a trip to No. 4 Florida the next week. Even so, the infrastructure is in place for the Gamecocks to win at a very high level -- something a lot of people thought wasn't possible when South Carolina joined the SEC.

Beefing up talent, especially along the lines of scrimmage, will do that, especially when you're coaching them up.

The final piece to South Carolina's ascent, though, can be traced to the kind of players the Gamecocks have brought in and the leadership on this team.

Junior quarterback Connor Shaw wouldn't pass for an SEC quarterback if he walked into most coaching meeting rooms around the league in street clothes. But ask those same coaches what they think of Shaw as a player, and you get the same response: He's a winner.

The same goes for Lattimore, whose impact on this team stretches far beyond his ability to wear down teams in the fourth quarter.

The pieces are in place for the Gamecocks to have a special season. It has been a long climb, but Spurrier has this program in a position that it has never occupied.

Now we find out whether the Gamecocks are truly ready to capitalize.

Chris Low | email

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