War Eagle Extra

SEC Preseason Power Rankings -- No. 4

Editor's note: The spectacle that is SEC media days ended two weeks ago. But with the newly-expanded four-day media event over, we're at a bit of a loss. Fall camp isn't here just yet; the regular season is even further away, with the 2014 campaign kicking off at the end of August. So what better time to roll out the preseason power rankings among teams in the SEC?

With that in mind, we'll count down the teams from worst to first. The format will involve a "best-case/worst-case" scenario for each team, taking our a page out of former War Eagle Extra beat writer Andy Bitter's playbook from 2010. (One final note: Please, as Bitter said four years ago, remember all scenarios "are meant to be hyperbolic.")

No. 4: South Carolina

Steve Spurrier is driven to win another Southeastern Conference championship. If he does so, it would be his seventh, breaking a tie with two other legendary coaches — Georgia's Vince Dooley and Ole Miss' John Vaught — and put Spurrier in second place by himself. Some guy named with the last name of Bryant won 13 conference crowns.

Those who cover the league think the Gamecocks have a good chance of helping the "Ol' Ball Coach" do just that this season. South Carolina was picked to win the SEC East and received the third-most votes to win the conference title behind Alabama and Auburn. The Gamecocks will have to do it with a fifth-year senior (and first-year starter) at quarterback in Dylan Thompson and without the top overall pick in the NFL draft (defensive end Jadeveon Clowney). But if anyone should be given the benefit of the doubt, it's Spurrier. You don't win six SEC championships by accident.

Or win 11 games at South Carolina ... three years in a row.

Best-case scenario: Spurrier gets his seventh SEC championship — and more. The Gamecocks get off to a scintillating start in the opener against Texas A&M. Hosting the Aggies in the first game on the SEC Network, the Gamecocks make league executives frown by pummeling the visitors 45-14 and forcing many to flip the channel at halftime. (So much for ratings.) Nine days later, South Carolina does it again, this time demolishing East Carolina 59-10. By the time Georgia rolls into town Sept. 13, Spurrier is at his wise-cracking best.

"How long has it been since the Bulldogs had a player arrested? A month?" he joked. "Well, good to see they're starting to behave. Not that it'll last. You can always count on Georgia keeping the police busy, you know."

The Bulldogs never have a chance. In a game that resembles the 2012 contest — which South Carolina won 35-7 in Columbia — the Gamecocks have no trouble cruising to a 38-10 victory. Each passing week, this team looks more and more like the kind of team Spurrier used to field at Florida — high-scoring and fun to watch. Each of the next four games (Vanderbilt, Missouri, Kentucky and Furman) the Gamecocks score 50 or more, the first time that feat has ever been accomplished at South Carolina. That streak comes to a stop the following week when it meets fellow top-five team Auburn on the road. What doesn't come to an end is the win streak. The Gamecocks go into Jordan-Hare Stadium and topple the Tigers 38-31. The next three games are a return to form, as South Carolina tops the 40-point plateau in easy wins over Tennessee, Florida and South Alabama.

Already at 11 victories, all that's standing between the Gamecocks and a perfect season is a trip to Death Valley to face their arch-rival. Clemson gives it everything, but it doesn't matter: "Darth Visor" simply has Dabo's number. It's the sixth straight time South Carolina has emerged victorious versus its in-state rival, making it the second-longest streak in the history of the series. Next year, the Gamecocks have a chance to tie the record of seven straight that Clemson set between 1934-40. But that's for next year. South Carolina still has things to accomplish this season.

Sitting at 12-0, the Gamecocks head to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. Awaiting is the man Spurrier has jabbed at multiple times over the past year: Alabama's Nick Saban. The Ol' Ball Coach has been on the record saying that with the multiple "recruiting national championships" Saban has accrued in his time in Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide has still underachieved by winning only two SEC titles. And that number remains at two when Spurrier walks to midfield for the postgame handshake, as the Gamecocks take a 28-20 victory for the school's first SEC championship.

But there are still two more games to play.

In a decision that irks many in SEC country, the No. 2 Gamecocks are forced to make the trek to Pasadena, Calif., even though they went undefeated AND won the league title. But that's what happens when the the team ranked ahead of you is the defending national champion. At the Rose Bowl, South Carolina faces Ohio State. Ironically, despite the Buckeyes having a far more storied history on the gridiron, it is the Gamecocks that own a 2-0 advantage in the all-time series.

In the weeks leading up to the game, Spurrier does what he does best: try to get under the skin of the other team.

"I've always liked Urban," he said of Ohio State's coach Urban Meyer. "I mean, he had a great career there at Florida. Quite a run they had — what was it, two national championships in three years? But it's still strange to me that he left when he did. He said he had 'health problems' that made him retire and he took that job at ESPN. Then one year later he's back to coaching. Guess ESPN has some good doctors. I might need to find out who they are once I finally retire for good."

To the surprise of no one, South Carolina wins 34-21, propelling the Gamecocks into the national title game against defending champion Florida State. It's a storyline almost too good to be true; for Spurrier to win his second national title, he has to go through his longtime in-state nemesis from his Florida days. And it's a daunting task: The Seminoles have NFL talent at nearly every position, and they've been almost as dominant as they were in 2013. Sure, the numbers dipped slightly and Jameis Winston was merely a finalist for the Heisman Trophy instead of becoming only the second two-time winner, but that doesn't make things any easier. And of all the dazzling numbers surrounding the Seminoles, the one that stands out the most is 30: as in, the number of consecutive games they've won, the longest since Southern Cal won 34 straight from 2003-05 (and which was later vacated due to the Reggie Bush scandal).

But as always, Spurrier can't help himself.

"Remember when I once said FSU stood for 'Free Shoes University?' Well I guess I was wrong. I remember seeing some shirts printed up after the whole crab leg incident with Jameis last year that had the words 'Free Seafood University' across it," he said. "I guess that's what it should be called now."

And of course, media members egg him on.

"Now I don't know about you guys, but I've picked up 30 some-odd dollars of seafood plenty of times and then just walked out without remembering to pay," he said. "Are you telling me that hasn't happened to you? It's an easy mistake to make, what with your hands full of seafood and all. How are you supposed to reach your wallet? I think y'all oughta cut Jameis some slack."

Once they take the field, Spurrier has the last laugh once again. The Gamecocks bring the national championship back to the SEC for the eighth time in nine seasons after beating the Seminoles 42-38. It's the second national championship for Spurrier, coming 18 years after his first. But he's showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.

"Why not come back and try to win it again next year?" he asks in his postgame press conference. "Never done it before. Might as well see if I can do it now."

Bringing a national championship to a once-downtrodden program like South Carolina forces people to once again take stock of Spurrier's place in college football history. Already among the top-10 coaches of all-time, this accomplishment should put him at least in the conversation for the top five, maybe higher. Not surprisingly, the Gamecocks sign another top-flight recruiting class. South Carolina fans take further joy out of its two biggest rivals — Georgia and Clemson — underachieving.

And somehow, despite how anticipated his appearances at SEC media days are every year, 2015 becomes the most-hyped in history. Spurrier leading things off on the first day? Media members are salivating.

He doesn't disappoint.

"Well, glad to be here again. Pretty cool being the first coach up here, right behind Commissioner (Mike) Slive. Hopefully I'm a tough act to follow for the rest of the coaches," Spurrier says. "Anyway, we're looking forward to the upcoming season. Think we've got a pretty good team. Of course we'd like to defend the national championship. But we can't do that if don't get things started off right in the first game, defending that Alamo Trophy that we won last year. Named after some guy named Bonham, right? OK, good."

Spurrier goes on to become only the second coach in the history of media days to receive a standing ovation at the end of his time at the podium, joining then-Vanderbilt coach Robbie Caldwell's stirring performance in 2010.

Worst-case scenario: Spurrier remains stuck at six SEC titles. That much is made clear just three games into the season, as the Gamecocks are 0-2 in conference play. In a slight upset, the Aggies come into Williams-Brice Stadium and knock off the higher-ranked hosts. Thompson struggles, throwing a pair of interceptions, helping the Aggies focus their efforts in keeping superstar running back Mike Davis in check. At the end of 60 minutes, A&M heads back to Texas with a 31-20 victory. South Carolina gets back to .500 one week later after beating ECU, but then Georgia comes calling.

Thompson plays better, but it's not enough to keep pace with a Georgia offense hitting on all cylinders with Todd Gurley on the ground and a deep receiving corps for Hutson Mason to jump-start the passing game. The Bulldogs drop the Gamecocks 38-28. But then, South Carolina shows some fight — they're called "Gamecocks" for a reason, right? — by ripping off a four-game win streak.

That leads right into their biggest challenge of the season: on the road versus a top-five Auburn squad. Not surprisingly, the win streak comes to a close, with the Tigers racing to a 49-17 victory. Things don't get any better one week later, as Tennessee beats South Carolina for the second straight season. Once more, South Carolina responds, pulling off back-to-back victories (over Florida and South Alabama) to get to 7-4 with only one regular season game remaining: the annual tussle with arch-rival Clemson.

It's the most agonizing loss of the season for South Carolina. The Gamecocks look well on their way to beating the Tigers for a remarkable sixth consecutive time, leading 31-27 with two and a half minutes to go. With only one timeout remaining, all South Carolina needs is one more first down. But Thompson and Davis have a missed exchange on the handoff, allowing the Tigers to jump on it. Less than two minutes later, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson plunges into the end zone, giving the Tigers a 34-31 victory.

It's never easy to recover from a loss like that, and the Gamecocks don't. Placed in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, N.C., isn't much of a trip. South Carolina's opponent, on the other hand, is delighted to be there. Pittsburgh continues to improve by one game each year under coach Paul Chryst — going 6-7 in 2012 and 7-6 in 2013 — and a 24-17 win over South Carolina gives them an 8-5 mark for 2014. With the loss, South Carolina finishes at 7-6, the worst under Spurrier's watch since posting the same record in both 2008 and 2009.

The good news for the Gamecocks is that they bring in a top 10 recruiting class, providing hope that 2015 will be far better. The bad news is that South Carolina can do nothing as it watches its two biggest rivals — Georgia and Clemson — take part in the first year of the four-team College Football Playoff.

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