CHARLESTON, S.C. -- These are the glory days for a South Carolina football program that didn't do much worth bragging about in the previous decade.
Under coach Steve Spurrier the Gamecocks have posted back-to-back 11 win seasons and have claimed 31 victories in the last three campaigns.
Spurrier, now the winningest USC football coach, wants more. He has his sights set on a Southeastern Conference title, something that has eluded him since his days as coach at Florida. Others believe the Gamecocks have a shot as they were voted seventh nationally in the USA Today Coach's preseason poll, which is the highest preseason ranking in USC history.
"We've got a pretty good team, I think," said Spurrier. "I don't know how good. We return a lot of guys on offense but we lost a lot of defensive players. We think we have some young players who are ready to step up and contribute."
USC won its last five games of the 2012 season, despite being without running back Marcus Lattimore in the final four and half. If the Gamecocks successfully negotiate their initial two games -- a season opener against North Carolina at home and road contest against SEC East Division rival Georgia -- they could make an early run.
Predicted to finish second in the East to Georgia, the biggest challenge for USC could be a three-game road trip to Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri. The team gets a break in league play, however, as it does not face Alabama, LSU or Texas A&M.
Senior Connor Shaw, who owns a 17-3 record as USC's starter, returns at quarterback. Junior Dylan Thompson, who led the Gamecocks to a victory over Clemson and threw the game winning touchdown pass against Michigan in the Outback Bowl, will also receive playing time.
Despite Lattimore moving to the NFL, the team boasts a solid corps of running backs led by sophomores Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds.
On defense the starting linebackers must be replaced as there isn't a player on the roster with a collegiate start. The team will counter with one of the nation's top defensive lines, led by All-American and Hendricks Award Winner Jadeveon Clowney.
Clowney has had an interesting summer. Following an outstanding sophomore season that concluded with a hit against Michigan running back Vincent Smith which won an ESPY Award, he has become a household name. Some draft analysts projected he would've been the No. 1 overall pick as a sophomore were he eligible in April. He's the top-ranked player for the 2014 draft by NFLDraftScout.com.
He finished the 2012 season with 23.5 tackles for loss, including 13 sacks.
"I would like to get a lot more sacks this season, hopefully some interceptions and do whatever I can to help my team win," said Clowney.
Fame comes with a price, however, as he has had to maneuver around two potential controversies. The first was a website report that he had been held meetings with music mogul and sports agent Jay-Z. Later several items signed by him were located on internet sites. He was cleared by the USC Compliance Department in both cases.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: South Carolina will re-open an old rivalry when it hosts North Carolina on Aug. 29th at Williams-Brice Stadium. The Gamecocks won the last encounter which took place in 2007. They then travel to Athens to take on a Georgia team that is picked to finish ahead of it in the SEC Eastern Division even though they own a three-game winning streak against the Bulldogs. USC decimated Georgia, in Columbia, 35-7, last season. The defense limited the Bulldogs to 224 yards of total offense. Following a home game against Vanderbilt, the Gamecocks take a trip to Orlando for a potentially dangerous game against a Central Florida team that was 10-4 last season.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: The offense could potentially be the best since Steve Spurrier took over the program. Connor Shaw has proven to be a capable passer throwing for 32 career touchdowns while suffering only 15 interceptions. The Gamecocks are 17-3 in games he's started. Shaw suffered several injuries last season, however. Junior Dylan Thompson proved he could get the Gamecocks through in a pinch. The duo of Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds must prove it can consistently replace Marcus Lattimore at running back. The defensive line, led by Jadeveon Clowney must be dominant as senior end Chaz Sutton appears prepared to have a breakout season. The offensive line returns four starters and should be strength.
AREAS OF CONCERN: The Gamecocks lost their entire crew of starting linebackers who were the backbone of the defense last season. Sophomores Kaiwan Lewis and Cedrick Cooper are slated as the starters, while the hybrid linebacker/safety position remains in the air. Lewis and Cooper are considered superior athletes to the former starters, but have to prove they have the same intelligence and instinct for the game. There is one plus. Shaq Roland, a three-year starter at MIKE linebacker now serves as a graduate assistant. "Having Shaq on the staff is great because he played the same position," said Lewis. "Even last year he said: `Here's my number. Give me a call when you need anything or want to watch film together.' Even when he was training for the NFL he would call or text to see how we were doing." With Adam Yates attempting to make it in the NFL, the Gamecocks have to find a new placekicker. Sophomore walk-on Landon Ard has the inside track.