COLUMBIA -- The Capital One Bowl trophy had spent less than an hour in South Carolina's locker room before Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier talked about building on the most successful football season in the school's history.
"Like I told the guys, next year's team, they'll try to win 12 because 11 already happened," he said Monday after USC beat Nebraska, 30-13, to win 11 games in a season for the first time.
While the Gamecocks have enjoyed previous success, albeit fleeting, the past two seasons are unrivaled for them. They did go 10-2 in 1984, only to dip to losing records the next two years. They finished 8-4 in both 1987 and 1988, but reached seven wins just once in the next 11 years.
Between 9-5 and a trip to the Southeastern Conference championship game last year, and 11-2 and a school-best 6-2 SEC record this season, the Gamecocks have set lofty standards for the future. Twelve wins is no easy task, but USC should return enough talent for the 2012 season to at least approach the glory of 2010 and 2011.
The Gamecocks now await word from three of their best players -- wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and defensive end Devin Taylor -- on whether they will skip their final season and enter the NFL draft.
Jeffery is rated the No. 40 prospect by NFLDraftScout.com, while Gilmore is No. 50, which would put both in the second round. Taylor is not listed in the site's rankings database, but he said the NFL's committee
that gives underclassmen estimates on their draft stock told him he is unlikely to be selected in the first three rounds. Spurrier has said he thinks his players should return to school unless they are projected first-round picks.
USC's defense, which is currently ranked No. 3 nationally in yards allowed per game (behind only national title participants LSU and Alabama), will definitely lose consensus All-America end Melvin Ingram, spur linebacker and leading tackler Antonio Allen, and cornerbacks C.C. Whitlock and Marty Markett, who shared a starting spot.
The offense is guaranteed to lose three linemen who started this season: right guard Terrence Campbell and tackles Kyle Nunn and Rokevious Watkins. Even if Jeffery leaves and backup tailback Kenny Miles decides to play his final season elsewhere, the Gamecocks expect tailback Marcus Lattimore to be 100 percent for his junior season after missing this year's final six games because of torn knee ligaments.
USC's special teams won't have punter Joey Scribner-Howard or kicker Jay Wooten, and kickoff returner Bruce Ellington hasn't decided yet whether he wants to play two sports next year, or just basketball.
If Gilmore and Taylor return, Lorenzo Ward could have a dominant group in 2012, his first season as USC's defensive coordinator. He debuted in that role for the bowl game, after Spurrier promoted him from defensive backs coach. Gilmore has said Ward's promotion will impact his decision, because he is close with Ward.
Spurrier still must hire a linebackers coach to replace Ellis Johnson, the former defensive coordinator who is now Southern Mississippi's head coach, and a running backs and tight ends coach to replace Jay Graham, who left to become the running backs coach at Tennessee.
There is also the offseason matter of USC's Feb. 17-18 meeting with the NCAA's Committee on Infractions in Los Angeles, where the school will learn the final verdict for allegations of major rules violations that have already resulted in self-imposed penalties.
But Spurrier sounded hopeful about the future Monday as he reflected on a dramatic season that saw the Gamecocks replace eventually dismissed quarterback Stephen Garcia with Connor Shaw after five games, lose Lattimore in the seventh game, play the regular season's final eight games without left tackle Nunn -- and still win 11 games.
"Connor was ready when his chance came," Spurrier said. "We knew that, so it wasn't like, 'Hey, we're in trouble.' We never were in a lot of trouble because we have a defense that can play. Gee, if you've got a bunch of guys playing like that, you can win against anybody. Got a lot of them coming back, and we're going to try to have a big year next year."