Michaux: Gamecocks must take advantage of open SEC

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has led his team to three consecutive 11-win seasons, but no SEC titles.

Steve Spurrier calls it “talking season,” and few talk the talk better than the Gamecocks’ ol’ head ball coach.

But talking won’t mean anything if South Carolina can’t walk the walk this year to the Southeastern Conference football championship game.

“We got a pretty good team we think,” Spurrier said at the SEC media days, and the media agreed by narrowly picking the Gamecocks to edge out Georgia for the SEC East.

Bulldogs coach Mark Richt doesn’t agree with that assessment, but what else is he supposed to say during “talking season?”

By all accounts, the SEC is pretty wide open this fall – and that’s saying something after Auburn and Missouri surprised everyone last year by reaching the Georgia Dome after 0-8 and 2-6 conference records, respectively, the year before. They overcame established strengths at Alabama, Louisiana State University, Georgia and South Carolina to get that far.

This season, the strengths aren’t so well defined. So many standout quarterbacks are gone from College Station, Texas, to Columbia and key points in between that it’s hard to tell exactly who will rise above the question marks. The principal programs are essentially the same, but there’s not the kind of sure thing you’d want to risk your mortgage on with any kind of guarantee.

Which is why South Carolina needs to take full advantage and not just talk.

All of the key indicators point in South Carolina’s favor.

The Gamecocks’ two early conference tests – Texas A&M in the opener and Georgia two weeks later – are both at home. That’s no small thing.

“Got a pretty good win streak going there, as most of you know,” Spurrier said.

South Carolina has won 18 in a row at Williams-Brice Stadium, dating to Oct. 1, 2011. It’s the second longest streak in the nation, behind Northern Illinois’ 26-game streak at Huskie Stadium.

Like fellow top-tier SEC programs* at Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Texas A&M and even Mizzou, the Gamecocks have huge shoes to fill at quarterback. Connor Shaw might not have been the prototypical signal caller, but he was a tough leader with an uncanny intangible quality of being able to win whatever it took.

(*Yes, the Gamecocks have earned inclusion among the conference elite with three consecutive 11-win seasons and top-10 final rankings.)

Dylan Thompson is a fifth-year senior with enough experience to make the Gamecocks comfortable with him taking over. Georgia is in similar hands with long-time backup Hutson Mason trying to replace the SEC’s all-time passing leader in Aaron Murray, but Thompson has more experience to bank upon and a better offensive line (even though Mason has Todd Gurley and better skill players).

Most of all, the Gamecocks have Spurrier and a mission to make history. It was serendipity that brought them together – the right coach in the right program that needed him most.

“I wanted to go out a winner, not a loser,” Spurrier said of his disappointing NFL detour between Florida and South Carolina. “Fortunately, South Carolina was really the best opportunity I could ever ask for. It was a school, you could probably describe their football tradition as mediocre, they had a losing record overall, way under .500 in SEC games. Nowhere to go but up.”

Spurrier has rewritten all that and built something special in Columbia, where no one really could before. He changed the culture from thinking they could be good to actually being good and flipped the Palmetto State with an unprecedented five-game winning streak over a pretty strong Clemson program.

Spurrier even admits it tops his coaching efforts at Florida, where he won six SEC and one national title in 12 years. He’s locked down the best in-state talent, enticed more high-dollar boosters and graduates some quality stars to the NFL ranks.

But only one thing will complete his mission before he retires – a title. Despite those three consecutive 11-win seasons and top-10 finishes in the final AP poll, the Gamecocks have been shut out of the SEC title game since their blowout loss to Auburn in 2010. All three seasons they watched a team they beat in the regular season (Georgia in 2011-12 and Missouri last year) represent the SEC East in the Georgia Dome.

“We’ve won a lot of games, but we still have only won one division, haven’t won an SEC,” Spurrier said. “Those are goals that we have a shot at that could happen for the first time in school history. ... I can assure you, I tell those recruits, ‘If you come here, hopefully you’ll be on the first‑ever SEC championship team ever.’ That’s still our goal. We haven’t quite done it. I think we’ve been close but not close enough.”

This is the window for the Gamecocks and Spurrier – before Georgia figures out how to play defense again and Florida and Tennessee get their acts together and rise back into prominence. It starts with winning the East and earning a date against all those elite recruits stockpiled at Alabama or LSU.

The SEC media is pretty terrible at picking league champions – getting the overall winner right only four times in 22 years. Alabama, this year’s choice, is 0-5 when tapped in the preseason. That bodes well for others.

But the media is right about South Carolina being the team to beat in the East. Now the Gamecocks need to walk the walk. Another 11-win season isn’t enough anymore in Columbia – not without a championship banner and a ring and perhaps a playoff appearance.

That will be something worth talking about for seasons to come.

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