These are uncertain times in Gamecock Nation – a crossing between the road of relevance South Carolina football fans have become accustomed to traveling and the long, dark secondary byways.
Which way the program turns this season relies on one of the toughest coaching challenges Steve Spurrier has faced.
Spurrier is already making some changes after a demoralizing opening-game loss at home to Texas A&M – a 52-28 undressing that Spurrier said “we’re still and will always be embarrassed by our performance.”
But with 11 games still ahead, including Saturday’s redemption opportunity against a pretty fair East Carolina team, the Gamecocks intend to change the script or die trying.
“We realize it’s history and just try to learn from it and try to play a whole bunch better and coach a whole bunch better the next time out, so that’s where we are right now,” Spurrier said at his weekly news conference. “Obviously we have to do things a little differently or we’re in for a long season, so we’ll try and do that and try to put a team on the field that our Gamecock fans will be proud of Saturday night.
“It’s only one game. We’ve got to stay positive as coaches, players and fans.”
The resounding defeat to the Aggies exposed some uncomfortable truths about the Gamecocks program. For all the great strides it has taken in getting high-end talent under Spurrier and before him Lou Holtz, its depth on the roster is still shallower than places like Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana State and Florida. If that wasn’t the case, the Gamecocks would not have felt the need to change defensive schemes from a proven model this off-season.
For the first time in a long time, they don’t have a stash of blue-chip All-American athletes dotting the defensive side of the roster like Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles, Melvin Ingram, Stephon Gilmore or Chris Culliver. For the first time in three seasons, they don’t have Connor Shaw and his relentless will to win leading the offense.
The Gamecocks haven’t always been pretty to watch during three consecutive 11-win seasons since their lone SEC Championship appearance in 2010, but they’ve been effective. If things weren’t going as planned in close games, either Shaw or the defense always seemed to make the big play at the right time to get the win.
It was the embodiment of “team sport” that one side would bail out the other more often than not.
Aside from some nice hookups between Dylan Thompson and Nick Jones, new playmakers didn’t step up against Texas A&M to make the difference. Mike Davis’ health limits the rushing game. The personnel on the line and secondary in the 3-4 defense neither pressured the quarterback nor covered the receivers.
Spurrier hoped to address that with perhaps some schematic changes but also a renewed vigor in practice. He talked about a “sense of urgency” and being “too lackadaisical” and always moving at a faster pace. He challenged both his offensive and defensive lines to get better by sending them out against each other five-on-four to “practice the heck out of it and see if we can get better.”
He wants to be better than bad on third downs and force more three-and-outs – areas that can only improve after being run over by the Aggies.
“We need to try to dominate out there, make the other team punt seven or eight times and get them off the field,” Spurrier said.
Defensive tackle J.T. Surratt believes they’ll come out the next two Saturdays at home and prove the opener was a fluke.
“I can’t even imagine having another game like that,” Surratt said. “We HAVE to be better. ... This week is a test to show what kind of people we have on this team. I feel that the people we’ve got here we can get things done. People we’ve got we can be even better than last year.”
Spurrier is “hoping and believing” that’s the case.
“Again, we think we have the players to fix it, so we’re going to find out here Saturday night,” he said.
The Gamecocks have another school-record streak on the line.
The last time the Gamecocks weren’t ranked in the top 25 of the AP poll was for the season-opener in 2010. They jumped in at No. 24 before beating Georgia 17-6 on Sept. 11, 2010, and have been somewhere between No. 3 and No. 20 all but twice since.
The Texas A&M beatdown threatened the Gamecocks’ presumptive standing among the game’s seasonal elite.
“I hope we’re still there and don’t completely drop out,” Spurrier said before the latest poll came out with South Carolina falling from ninth to 21st. Another loss this week to East Carolina or next week to Georgia might be the end of that streak.
But a major turnaround could send the Gamecocks back toward their goals as preseason favorites in the SEC East.
“Obviously, preseason talk, is all it is,” Spurrier said. “No one knows how a team really comes around to be. Obviously, expectations are there every year. Some teams are maybe not as good as advertised and some are better than advertised. It’s a wait and see for us.”