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Despite obstacles, Gamecocks look to improve on record 11-win season

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The Gamecocks capped their historic season by beating Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. (Getty Images)  
The Gamecocks capped their historic season by beating Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. (Getty Images)  

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- To Steve Spurrier, numbers mean things.

Take two of his favorite numbers: 66 and 11.

Spurrier won the Heisman Trophy in 1966.

He wore No. 11 for the University of Florida.

Last April Spurrier turned 66 years old but, thanks to a workout regimen developed by his wife, Jerri, he is in better shape that most men half his age.

Last spring, as he was getting ready for a golf game, Spurrier looked into a bag of balls given to him by Taylor Made.

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"There were two balls that seemed to be looking right at me," Spurrier said.

The numbers were 66 and 11. He put them on little stands and placed them on a shelf behind his desk at the South Carolina football complex.

"I told Jerri, 'You never know, they might be lucky,' " Spurrier said.

There wasn't a whole lot of luck involved, but those numbers paid off again during the 2011 season. For the first time in the school's football history, which goes back to 1892, South Carolina won 11 games in a season. The Gamecocks set the record by beating Nebraska 30-13 in the Capital One Bowl.

"It's pretty fun doing things at a place that have never been done before," said Spurrier, who has won more games (116) against SEC competition than any coach not named Bear Bryant. "And hopefully we're not done yet."

Last season's 11 wins was a continuation of firsts for Spurrier since he replaced Lou Holtz at South Carolina in 2005. In 2010 South Carolina beat a No. 1 team for the first time (Alabama, 35-21 in Columbia) and reached the SEC Championship Game for the first time since the school became a member in 1992. The Gamecocks were overwhelmed by Auburn, the eventual national champion, but that benchmark was recorded for posterity.

South Carolina certainly was good enough to get back to Atlanta in 2011. The Gamecocks beat all of their SEC East opponents, including a 45-42 win over Georgia in Athens. But South Carolina was trounced by Arkansas 44-28 on the road and suffered a tough 16-13 home loss to Auburn, the defending national champions. Georgia, whose only regular-season SEC loss was to South Carolina (Georgia did not play Alabama, LSU or Arkansas from the West), won the division.

"We certainly had our chances to get back to Atlanta, and if we beat Auburn at home then we are there," Spurrier said. "But we've raised the expectations around here and that's a good thing."

In Spurrier's first few years, he was convinced the players and the fan base at South Carolina had grown to accept losing. With six SEC championships in 12 seasons at Florida (1990-2001), Spurrier certainly loves winning. But he despises losing.

There was also a stretch in 2007 (6-6), 2008 (7-6), and 2009 (7-6) when some Gamecocks fans wondered whether the game had passed Spurrier by. Even Spurrier said if he couldn't get it turned around, they wouldn't have to ask him to leave. He would get out of the way and give somebody else a chance.

Firsts for Spurrier's South Carolina
SEC East title (2010)
Six SEC wins in a season (2011)
Undefeated in SEC East (2011)
Beating a No. 1 team (Alabama, 2010)
Winning in Knoxville (2005)
Winning in Gainesville (2010)
Beating Florida, Tennessee, and Georgia
in back-to-back seasons (2010, 2011)
Three consecutive bowl games (2009-11)
Six straight road wins (2010-2011)
Four straight 7+ win seasons

But in the past four years recruiting has picked up. In fact, this marks the fourth consecutive year Spurrier's staff has signed South Carolina's Mr. Football: defensive back Stephon Gilmore (2009), running back Marcus Lattimore (2010), defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (2011) and wide receiver Shaq Roland (2012).

Spurrier felt so good about his recruiting organization that he took time away in January to have knee replacement surgery.

"Now we have some difference-makers who can win a ball game for us," he said. "We don't have as many as teams like Alabama or LSU, but we have enough of them."

Spurrier would love to raise the bar again with 12 wins in 2012. He would like to post double-digit wins for the second straight year, which is another thing that has never been done at South Carolina.

But there are some real obstacles to overcome. First is the loss of wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, whose ability to out-jump opponents won a game at Mississippi State (14-12) and overwhelmed Nebraska in the bowl game. There is talent at the position, including the freshman Roland. But there is no one with Jeffery's height and wingspan.

Then there is the ongoing recovery of running back Marcus Lattimore, who was one of the nation's best before he suffered a knee injury against Mississippi State on Oct. 15 and was lost for the season. Lattimore isn't being asked to do very much this spring, but Spurrier said he is expected to be at full strength by this summer.

"We feel good about Marcus," Spurrier said. "He's a special player."

For the first time in a long time, the status of quarterback Stephen Garcia will not be a dark cloud hanging over this program. Garcia, a problem child from Day One, finally ran out of second chances and was cut loose in the middle of last season. Connor Shaw was handed the reins and, after some early struggles, became more confident with each game. He returns as the clear No. 1.

Defensively, there are questions about a unit that finished No. 3 nationally (allowing 267.69 yards per game) behind Alabama and LSU.

Spurrier said goodbye to defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who became the head coach at Southern Mississippi. Johnson's defense was so consistently good (31 sacks, 32 forced turnovers) that Spurrier started doing something many thought he would never do: He pulled back on the offense and chose to win ugly.

"We were playing old-timey football like [former Georgia coach] Vince Dooley," he said.

Spurrier elevated defensive assistant Lorenzo Ward to coordinator. The defense will miss Stephon Gilmore, its best player in the secondary. But opponents won't have much time to throw because Clowney (eight sacks as a true freshman), one of the nation's best raw talents at defensive end, is back for his sophomore season.

Even beyond team obstacles, South Carolina may not be picked to win the SEC East. The Gamecocks this season face Arkansas and LSU from the West Division while the Bulldogs, for the second straight year, will not have to contend with Alabama, LSU or Arkansas.

But if the Gamecocks are projected by the media to win the division, it would be the second straight year that has happened.

And that would be another first under Spurrier.

"Did you know we are 8-0 against Florida, South Carolina, Georgia and Clemson the past two years?" Spurrier asked. "First time we've done that too."

The guy really likes numbers.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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