Senior College Football Columnist

Good ol' Spurrier not pushing as many buttons, but still winning in SEC


Confidence is high for Spurrier as he prepares for the upcoming SEC campaign. (AP)  
Confidence is high for Spurrier as he prepares for the upcoming SEC campaign. (AP)  

HOOVER, Ala. -- Steve Spurrier knows something. You can see it in those 67-year-old eyes. They're twinkling again.

"That's probably why I'm still coaching," South Carolina's celebri-coach said. "Our teams are getting better."

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How much better is the question. Once you get past Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and Georgia in the SEC, Carolina is one hell of a fifth option. Not just for the conference, for the national championship.

Spurrier knows it, he just won't say it. At least not in front of 1,100 credentialed media on Tuesday. The eyes, for now, speak for themselves. Along with that semi-smirk, they scream, "We're good and we know it". It's only taken him until his eighth year with the Gamecocks.

Of course, there are those who thought it would never happen. He followed up a 2010 East division title with a school-record 11 wins in 2011. The old Spurrier would have let you know it. Coach Comedy practically turned into normal everyday Podium Drone on Tuesday at the SEC media days.

The man is coming off perhaps the best coaching job of his career. Forget any single season at Florida. In 2011, the quarterback situation was a mess that was cleaned within the context of an 11-2 season. As Stephen Garcia was playing his way off the team, current junior Connor Shaw was quietly becoming a competent dual threat. Spurrier lost his best player, running back Marcus Lattimore, to a knee injury and still swept Florida, Georgia, Clemson and Tennessee for the second year in a row.

"I think we'd have a week celebration if we beat one of those four 10 years ago," Spurrier said.

"But we realize we're not favored like we usually were those years at Florida. We've got some teams ranked ahead of us. That's OK."

Which in Spurrier-speak means it isn't OK, not at all. It means sophomore defensive end Jadaveon Clowney is poised to become the most fearsome defensive end in the league. Lattimore is fully recovered from the knee injury. Georgia comes to Columbia on Oct. 6.

But this is still Carolina where old ladies call in to sports talk shows and tell the head coach they're scared about the upcoming season.

"Ma'am," Spurrier shot back, "I'm scared right along with you."

This is still the place they used to politely applaud the effort at sold-out Williams-Brice Stadium -- after losses.

"Please don't do that again. Please don't clap when you lose a game," Spurrier said recalling an '06 loss to Auburn. "There's not moral victories in any sport."

This is also the SEC where the fifth option can be the best option. Anyone recall LSU coming from No. 14 in the preseason to win it all in 2003? These Gamecocks are going to start the season hovering around the top 10 after finishing in the top 10 for the first time in their history.

"You never know who can emerge," receiver Ace Sanders said. "Who would have guessed Cam Newton would take his team to be undefeated? No one saw that coming from a mile away. Any team, anything is possible."

They've been saying that kind of thing for only the 120-year history of the program. Still ...

"A lot has changed at South Carolina in seven years," said the coach known formerly for his quick wit and laser-armed quarterbacks.

Now it's all modesty, quick-off-the-edge defensive ends and plodding tailbacks. Thing is, no one here at the media days has the patience to listen to it. They're busy worshipping Nick, questioning Les and giggling at the insight of SEC newcomer T.J. Moe.

"They say girls are prettier here, air's fresher and toilet paper is thicker," said Missouri's receiver.

Not bad, kid, but you've got a long way to go to beat the master. It's been 20 years now for Spurrier in the SEC -- two decades of bustin' Bowden, chops and quarterbacks. Coach Comedy is now an elder statesman -- mellow, bordering on boring. We gave him plenty of opportunities Tuesday to bask in the afterglow of his school's first 11-win season, to expand on our fawning. Last season really was the best coaching job of his career, right?

"I don't really rank 'em," Spurrier said.

Is it possible that as a gum-flappin' football genius, isn't one anymore? Entirely. Saban is younger. Les Miles is quirkier. And maybe that's the way Spurrier wants it. He's sooo 1996. But what he has done is make South Carolina matter. Clowney and Devin Taylor may be the best pair of defensive ends in the SEC. That old quarterback magic returned when Garcia was finally booted off the team. Shaw, a 500-yard rusher, completed 74.5 percent in his final three games while throwing for eight touchdowns.

Quite possibly, the junior gets it. Quite possibly, that's the first time any South Carolina quarterback under Spurrier has gotten it. That's OK. South Carolina changed as Spurrier changed with it.

"Yeah, it is a little bit of peace of mind," the coach said.

Look in those twinkling eyes. They focus as Spurrier recalls the inequity of his conference schedule. South Carolina went undefeated in the SEC East last season and still lost out to division champ Georgia, after winning in Athens. This season the Gamecocks play LSU and Arkansas. Georgia doesn't.

Spurrier informally proposed in the offseason that only division games count in the standings. We all laughed including, probably, CBS. That Carolina-LSU game on Oct. 20? Just an exhibition. Uh, no.

"If I made the schedule," Spurrier said. "Georgia would be playing LSU and we'd be playing Ole Miss."

You take your bling where you get it. On Tuesday, Sanders wore a jewel-encrusted monster on his left hand Tuesday signifying the 2010 East title. Shaw sported a similar piece of ice handed out for the 11-win season.

"I want two rings," Sanders said.

That would require winning the East and SEC title, but why stop there?

"Yep, we could get three rings this year," he suddenly remembered.

East, SEC and national championship.

If you haven't figured it out, that's why Spurrier is still coaching.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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