HOOVER, Ala. -- High expectations have been almost a dream at South Carolina. Rather, realistically high expectations.
The Gamecocks struggled for a century or so to get above the .500 mark overall -- and despite recent success, they are still only two games on the positive side -- and their program was a poster child for having many of the tools needed for success but never having success.
Now? Steve Spurrier has to keep expectations in the Palmetto State in check.
“I think it’s nice to have the magazines say we’ve got a chance,” Spurrier said Wednesday at SEC Media Days. “Some of them are picking us to win the East.”
Spurrier thinks the fans are getting better at not settling for coming close.
“I sort of got a little upset at our fans when they clapped after we lost,” he said. “We came close against a No. 2 or No. 3 team in the country and got beat. I don’t think you should boo the team, but I don’t think you should clap, either.
“We’ve got enough players to get in the action to compete with about everybody we play.”
The Gamecocks are starting their 118th season of football and 20th in the SEC, and they are sharing space near the top of the hill rather than the bottom. South Carolina won the SEC East in 2010, and Spurrier was naturally thrilled with that, the final milestone of the season.
“We made some progress last year,” Spurrier said. “We did some things for the first time ever: beat a No. 1 team, Alabama, on Oct. the 9th, won our first game ever in The Swamp, won the Eastern Division.”
The latter was as much taking advantage of subpar seasons at Florida, Georgia and Tennessee as anything.
“We know that Georgia, Tennessee and Florida were down last year,” he said. “That’s what gave us hope and probably the big reason we won the East last year. We have a ways to go. We were a very evenly consistent team, I guess you’d say, (on) offense and defense. Both of them finished seventh in the conference. We were not a great team, by any means.
“And our special teams ranked near the bottom in about every category, the bottom half.”
How much better the Gators, Bulldogs and Volunteers will be in 2011 is certainly up for debate, so the Gamecocks have a fair shot to do something heretofore unheard of for the inhabitants of Williams-Brice Stadium: repeat as division champions.
What has Spurrier feeling like he did 10 years ago -- when Florida went 10-2 and finished third nationally in his final season with the Gators -- is the talent level in Columbia.
Marcus Lattimore took the SEC by storm at running back as a freshman, Alshon Jeffery became one of the nation’s top wide receivers, and cornerback Stephon Gilmore emerged as a top multiple threat.
Lattimore is hungry to erase the bad taste of postseason losses to Auburn in the SEC championship and Florida State in the Chick-fil-A bowl as the Gamecocks failed to get their second 10-win season in history.
“We lost those two games, it really hurt,” said Lattimore, who ran for 1,197 yards and caught another 412 yards worth of passes. “That just gives us motivation going into East Carolina game (in the season opener).”
And he has an eye on a little more hardware.
“I see George Rogers’ Heisman Trophy every day,” Lattimore said. “It’s something I dream about.”
Jeffery said just working in practice helped him get on par with Georgia’s A.J. Green and Alabama’s Julio Jones, who helped give the SEC a ridiculous trio of receivers in 2010.
“My favorite cornerback that I love going against is my cornerback every day in practice,” Jeffery said. “Stephon Gilmore. Every day.”
Throw in getting another elite recruit in defensive end Jadeveon Clowney to top the signing class, and Spurrier thinks South Carolina will take another step forward and upward.
“One thing that gives us hope is we’ve done a very good job of recruiting our in-state top players,” he said. “We’ve been able to sign the Mr. Football in the state the last three years.”
Clowney, ranked by many as the nation’s top recruit of all positions a year ago, has already turned the head of defensive tackle Travanian Robertson.
“He’s fitting in real well,” Robertson said. “He just fits in real well right now. I believe what everyone was writing about him was the truth. He’s making all his times, he’s not cocky at all. He’s just a Gamecock.”
Also turning heads, in a different way, is often-disciplined quarterback Stephen Garcia, the wildest of cards. As of Wednesday -- and he’s almost day to day until his career is over -- Garcia was working towards getting back on the team next month.
“He has some guidelines he must follow to be reinstated in August,” Spurrier said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked. Right now, he in all likelihood will be set to return. But he and Connor Shaw will battle it out a little bit.”
Spurrier feels the talent level is there to be the East favorite and, gasp, repeat.
“It was a good year, it wasn’t a great year,” he said. “We’re still battling to win the game in Atlanta. If you can win the one in Atlanta, you can go on and win the national (championship).”
“We just talk about trying to win the East, win the game in Atlanta.”