COLUMBIA - Steve Spurrier will admit, he hasn't yet seen the 85-foot-high banner of himself which now adorns one side of Williams-Brice Stadium. But the South Carolina football coach knows his teams must continue to justify its presence.
"It wasn't my idea," the Head Ball Coach said Sunday at his first weekly news conference of the 2014 season. "But hopefully, we can keep winning here at Williams-Brice. I don't want people coming by there throwing eggs at it. And that could happen. If we go bad, that could happen, as we all know. So hopefully we're not going to go bad. I think this is a team that's prepared well through the summer and we'll be ready to compete, compete at a high level. I really believe that's going to happen, but we got to go wait and find out."
The wait ends Thursday night, when the ninth-ranked Gamecocks open the season against No. 21 Texas A&M in the first game broadcast by the SEC Network.
The addition of the Spurrier banner comes at a somewhat appropriate time, as the Gamecocks begin a new campaign without players like defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and quarterback Connor Shaw who helped fuel the program's third consecutive 11-win season. In his 11th year with a program he's taken to unprecedented heights, no one symbolizes South Carolina football more than Spurrier - which is why athletics director Ray Tanner wanted his head coach on the new banner rather than a player.
"The big thing, obviously, is how we play inside the ballpark," Spurrier said. "That's what is most important. Coaches and players, we can't worry too much about what happens outside. We have to worry about what happens on the field. That's our major thought right there."
Toward that end, the Aggies and Gamecocks have some similarities as they meet for the first time. For South Carolina, frequent substitute quarterback Dylan Thompson moves permanently into the starting role in place of Shaw, who never lost a home game and is now trying to make the Cleveland Browns' roster. The defensive end has been completely rebuilt with the departure of Clowney - now with the Houston Texans - and two other starters. Meanwhile, the Aggies replace Heisman Trophy winning-quarterback Johnny Manziel with sophomore Kenny Hill, who appeared in four games a season ago. Jake Matthews, anchor of the offensive line, is now with the Atlanta Falcons. And of the quartet of receivers who helped make Manziel so dangerous, only senior Malcolme Kennedy returns.
Of course, don't tell that to Spurrier, who found plenty of new players to worry about - some of them freshmen who have yet to take a collegiate snap.
"A&M is a very good team," he said. "Just been reading a little bit about some of their incoming freshmen players. They've got a defensive end, Myles Garrett, that some people are comparing to Clowney. . And obviously, a fast wide receiver named Speedy Noil who I think was another top-five or 10 recruit in the nation as well. They are going to play a lot of young guys it appears, but they have a lot of experience with guys coming back that were sort of freshmen last year from what we can tell. Obviously, they lost their quarterback, wide receiver and offensive line, three No. 1 (draft) picks last year. But they are probably a little bit like us that they haven't had a bunch of superstars to talk about this preseason, and their players are anxious to earn their way, just like our guys. Our guys are anxious to show the country we can play ball, and we have a lot of good players also."
Depth, once such an Achilles' heel for South Carolina in the seasons before Spurrier arrived, is now a luxury at almost every position. That could come in handy on the offensive line, where guard Mike Matulis has been lost for likely at least the first half of the season with a knee injury, and center Cody Waldrop has missed some practice time with an oblique strain. On the depth chart for the Texas A&M game, Waldrop is listed at guard to replace Matulis, with either Clayton Stadnik or Will Sport snapping the ball.
"Cody might be a little better guard than he is a center, to tell you the truth," Spurrier said. "He doesn't have to worry about snapping the ball, he can just concentrate on blocking. Yeah, we got a lot of offensive linemen that played a lot, obviously, up there. We got seven or eight, and after that, we're not as deep as could be."
Then there's running back Mike Davis, who has missed some practice time with bruised ribs, but remains the projected starter. "Hopefully, Mike will be full speed, 100 percent, by Thursday," Spurrier said. "We think he will be."
Of equal concern to Spurrier is Texas A&M's 10-2 record on the road in its first two seasons in the SEC.
"They are not afraid to go into the other guy's ballpark," he said.
And yet it's the Gamecocks, projected to win the SEC East in a preseason media poll, who are picked to have the real banner year - one that has nothing to do with the big photo of the Ball Coach now hanging outside Williams-Brice Stadium.
"I think it's nice to be picked a little bit," Spurrier said. "People think we've got a chance to be pretty good, maybe that tells our players, 'Hey, we got a chance to be pretty good.' But we also know that we can get beat, just like almost anybody can get beat these days. We have to go coach and play well if we're going to give ourselves a good chance."
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