COLUMBIA, S.C. -- For the South Carolina Gamecocks these are the glory days -- and in their opener against North Carolina on Thursday night they want to keep it that way.
After finishing ranked in the top 10 in both 2011 and 2012, they enter the 2013 campaign ranked sixth nationally by the Associated Press.
And for extra drawing power, they are led by who many consider to be college football's best player, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. He is good enough to be considered a Heisman Trophy favorite by some, and the No. 1-rated prospect for the 2014 draft by NFLDraftScout.com.
Add it up and the Gamecocks are in a lot of conversations for the national championship.
While coach Steve Spurrier believes his squad has what it takes to make waves this season, he is anxious to see what it brings to the table when South Carolina plays host to North Carolina.
"I wish we were throwing better," said Spurrier. "I wish our quarterbacks and receivers were hitting and catching better. But anyway, we'll keep working on it up to game time, and see if we can't pitch it around a little bit better than we have the last few days. Other than that, everything's about according to schedule."
The Gamecocks enter on a streak of winning 13 consecutive season openers, while Spurrier is 22-1 all-time in first games. Many of those contests have been nail biters, however. The Tar Heels feature a fast break offense that keeps defenses on their toes. While USC has played well against other squads with similar attacks, UNC could present a more formidable foe.
"This type of team wants to go fast the whole game," said USC senior defensive end Chaz Sutton. "No matter how they're doing, they want to get lined up and go fast where it is the first quarter or the fourth quarter. Sometimes they shoot themselves in the foot when they do it but, at the same time, that's the kind of talent they have."
The game will test USC's talented but untested linebackers. Sophomore Kaiwan Lewis and Marcquis Roberts are slated to start at MIKE and WILL linebacker, while junior Sharrod Golightly is slated to open at the Spur position. None of the three have started in a college game, although the group is considered faster and more athletically gifted than its predecessors.
Sophomore Cedrick Copper, who has missed three weeks with a dislocated elbow, could miss the opener.
The secondary has solid starting corners in junior Victor Hampton and senior Jimmy Legree, but doesn't have quality depth. Junior free safety Brison Williams will serve as the group leader, while junior Kadetrix Marcus and sophomore T.J. Gurley give the Gamecocks a strong one-two punch at strong safety.
Quarterback Connor Shaw leads a Gamecocks offense that returns four of five starters at offensive line, but no longer features Marcus Lattimore in the backfield. Sophomore Mike Davis takes over the team's feature back.
The passing game has been a work in progress for the Gamecocks mostly due to injuries. Junior Bruce Ellington missed almost three weeks with a hamstring injury, but recently returned to practice. Talented tight ends Rory Anderson and Jerell Adams remain one/two on the depth chart but have missed time due to injuries.
Gamecocks to watch:
--LT Corey Robinson has gone from not being on the radar to potentially USC's top offensive lineman. The 6-8, 341-pound junior left tackle has had his problems in recent practices, however, in his attempt to handle Clowney. Fact is, if Robinson could handle Clowney, he might be the only one. However, while line coach Shawn Elliott has been pleased with the play of Robinson, the inability to block Clowney could be a shock to his confidence.
--QB Connor Shaw entered the fall healthy following foot surgery which kept him out of action during the spring. He has suffered back spasm and injured his thumb during the Gamecocks' final public scrimmage. While he now appears to be 100 percent, Spurrier has not been happy with the progression of the passing game. Much of it has not been the fault of Shaw, or backup Dylan Thompson. Injuries to several receivers, including Ellington, has hurt.
--DE Chaz Sutton was a highly-regarded high school prospect who signed with USC after de-committing from Florida. The senior, who has already graduated, has finally made the starting lineup following an outstanding junior campaign in which he garnered five sacks as a reserve. "There were certain times in my life when I wanted to make that jump or make that move to another university," said Sutton. "But, at the same time, I talked to my family and they said stick around, God has a plan for you. I stuck it out and things are turning out great for me now."
--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.