Beware, the prognosticators are saying: South Carolina might well sneak up on some teams this year.
But let's be realistic. With Lou Holtz as your coach, is that really possible? Tight end Trey Pennington doesn't think so.
"But it could be a good thing," said the 6-foot-5, 257-pound senior. "It takes a lot of pressure off us, because it kind of puts the spotlight on him instead of us."
There's no doubt the spotlight's glare has been focused on Columbia since Holtz was hired in December. His comments about litter on South Carolina's roadways made national headlines. The athletics department has played host to a bevy of visits from national media, including The New York Times, USA Today, CNN-Sports Illustrated and the Washington Post.
All this for an outfit that's won just once in its last 14 games? Pennington said it might be dangerous for fans to contrive grandiose expectations from Holtz's mere presence.
"It could be bad, because Lou Holtz is our coach and people are going to expect a lot out of us, and it puts pressure on us," he said. "That's not a bad thing, necessarily. Lou Holtz is one of the best football coaches in the game, but he's not going strap up and go out there and get between the lines."
It isn't as though Holtz has been building up the Gamecocks to be some behemoth reminiscent of the national powers he built at Notre Dame from 1986-96. The 62-year-old has made poor-mouthing an art form during his 28 years as a head coach, and he's taken it to a new level with his newest, most daunting venture.
How deep are the Gamecocks? "We couldn't get on Noah's Arc because we don't have two of anything," is his reply. How bad are the problems on the offensive line? "Destitute," he says.
Is it really that bad? Melvin Paige doesn't think so.
"I can't disagree with my coach, but I don't think we're as bad as everybody is expecting us to be," said Paige, a sophomore offensive lineman who was voted freshman All-SEC in 1998.
And so what if the spotlight is on the coach? Linebacker John Abraham said that's the way Holtz, a master of deflection, prefers it.
"Coach Holtz is trying to get the attention on him so the players will be concentrating on football instead of the media and stuff like that," Abraham said. "That will help us more than it will hurt us."
South Carolina radio affiliates:
Aiken/Johnston, WKSX-FM 92.7
Allendale, WDOG-FM 93.5
Bamberg, WWBD-FM 95.7
Columbia, WVOC-AM 560
All Gamecock Radio Network broadcasts can be heard on the Internet at www.uscsports.com.
The Lou Holtz Show can be seen on Sundays at 6 p.m. on WAGT-TV (Ch. 26).
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