Hopes run sky high for USC

After going 11-2 last season, expectations are higher for football coach Steve Spurrier and USC.

BLYTHEWOOD — Steve Spurrier said he doesn’t feel much differently about his 2012 South Carolina football team than he did about his previous seven since he took over in 2005.

He knows, however, that most USC fans have unprecedented optimism about the program, which is coming off its best back-to-back seasons ever — 9-5 and a trip to the Southeastern Conference championship game in 2010, and a school-best 11-2 record in 2011, when USC finished ninth in The Associated Press poll for its first top-10 finish.

The Gamecocks lost several talented players from that team, including cornerback Stephon Gilmore, defensive end Melvin Ingram, spur linebacker Antonio Allen and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. But as the Gamecocks prepare to begin preseason practices a week from today, with the season opener set for Aug. 30 at Vanderbilt, there are plenty of reasons for optimism.

Their offense lost just Jeffery and two linemen. Marcus Lattimore, one of the nation’s best tailbacks, returns after suffering a season-ending knee injury in last year’s seventh game. The defense, which allowed the third- fewest yards per game in the country last season, must replace both corners, but has a fearsome end tandem in Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney, and a more physical spur in former strong safety DeVonte Holloman.

Regardless of whether this team reaches 11 wins again, it should challenge for the SEC East division championship, an expectation that Spurrier knows means nothing in late July.

“We’re just in talking season right now,” he said Thursday at his annual media golf event. “That’s all we’re doing, is talking about what we hope to do. Expectations are a little bigger, just like they were the last couple of years, although we did not set a goal of winning 11 games. Eight, nine, 10 were our three goals for last year. That team accomplished a lot last year, but there’s still a lot of firsts out there, like winning the SEC, that we hope to do someday soon.”

Spurrier seems to have enjoyed proving wrong those who told him before he took the USC job that he couldn’t win in Columbia. In fact, multiple times late last season, he recounted the story of people warning him against accepting the job.

Spurrier is 67 and in the twilight of his career. He last won the SEC in 2000, his second-to-last year at Florida. That he has built USC to the point that it is considered a realistic candidate to even make the league’s championship game for the second time in three years is no small accomplishment. Despite missing the game last season, the Gamecocks had their best SEC record ever at 6-2 and went undefeated against the East, another first.

If USC’s defense this season performs even close to the way it did last season, and the offense delivers a bit more pop than its 373.5 yards and 30.1 points per game from 2011 (No. 73 and 42 nationally), then the Gamecocks have a legitimate shot at being 5-0 entering a difficult October stretch — Georgia, LSU and Florida, with the latter two on the road.

An interesting offensive storyline to watch early is how opposing defenses scheme for the combination of Lattimore and quarterback Connor Shaw, an adept runner who has worked on staying in the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield.

Shaw became the starter in the sixth game, a blowout of Kentucky. Lattimore got hurt in the next game. After his injury, defenses played soft coverage against the Gamecocks and dared them to run the ball, said quarterbacks coach G.A. Mangus. When Shaw proved a capable scrambler, defenses put an extra player near the line of scrimmage to contain him, which meant more one-on-one pass coverage on the perimeter and more opportunities for Shaw to throw.

With the return of Lattimore, who has averaged 100.8 yards in 20 career games, does Mangus expect Shaw to continue to see one-on-one coverage as defenses try to stop USC’s runners?

“We’ll see,” Mangus said. “A lot of people have asked me that, buddies have asked me that. The two of them didn’t get to play a whole bunch together. They kind of played together for a half, in essence.

“We really don’t have a pattern for how teams will defend us, so that’s going to be a fun thing to kind of look at and see what people choose to do. We’ll make adjustments accordingly. Connor and Marcus together will be fun.”