Without word on suspensions, USC prepares for season opener tonight

Steve Spurrier enters his sixth season as head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks — still chasing the title-winning legacy he established at Florida — under a cloud of possible NCAA suspensions.

COLUMBIA -- The time has come to see what South Carolina has -- and does not have -- on the football field.

The Gamecocks open the 2010 season tonight against Southern Miss (7:30 p.m, ESPN). They will likely do so without a handful of players, who are still waiting the NCAA's decision about their eligibility.

Wednesday came and went without a ruling on a half-dozen South Carolina contributors who are in limbo for possibly taking improper benefits from a Columbia hotel.

Sources have said the past week that starting free safety Akeem Auguste and reserve cornerback C.C. Whitlock are the likeliest to be suspended a game or two, for falling behind on their rent

at The Whitney Hotel.

It's possible, too, that starting left tackle Jarriel King, starting right guard Terrence Campbell and starting defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye could face some sort of punishment.

The only player South Carolina knows it will be without is senior tight end Weslye Saunders, who remains indefinitely suspended for violating team rules.

Word was supposed to come from the NCAA earlier in the week. If the school learned the players' fates, it hasn't chosen to disclose the information publicly, or through sources.

Coach Steve Spurrier's last availability came Wednesday morning on the SEC's weekly teleconference.

"Most of our guys, I think, are going to play," Spurrier said. "We've got one or two that might not. We'll find out at the last moment."

Asked again a little later: "I haven't heard anything," he said. "So, we're just approaching the game with a lot of several situations. We'll just have to wait and see."

With or without those players, South Carolina will be tested in the opener.

Southern Miss is a fast-paced, pass-oriented team, coached by former Florida offensive coordinator Larry Fedora.

Spurrier has seized on the fact that Fedora claimed during the summer that his team expected to win the game.

Fedora has since backpedaled. Spurrier must have missed that part.

"This is a group of players who believe they can certainly come in here and beat us," Spurrier said. "Their coach has already said they expect to beat us, and it's going to be a down-to-the-wire, probably tough, physical game for us.

"We know that. We know it's a tough, physical game, very similar to a lot of our conference games."

This is the fifth time in six seasons that Spurrier's Gamecocks have opened the college football schedule on ESPN, even if more games will join South Carolina-Southern Miss on this evening's docket.

South Carolina is 5-0 in those games, dating back to Spurrier's first game at USC, against Central Florida in 2005. The Gamecocks defeated North Carolina State to begin the 2008 and 2009 seasons. It also won a road Thursday night game at Mississippi State in Spurrier's second season.

A lot of eyes will be trained this evening toward South Carolina's backfield, where a pair of quarterbacks and as many as four running backs will get their turns.

Junior Stephen Garcia is expected to start at quarterback. Senior Brian Maddox will be the first running back in the game.

But freshman Connor Shaw will spell Garcia at some point in the first half, Spurrier has said. Sophomore Kenny Miles, freshman Marcus Lattimore and, maybe, sophomore Jarvis Giles could get carries during the course of the night.

Lattimore, clearly, is the spotlight-getter. The coaching staff has spent the past month talking up a player that received a great deal of attention during his recruitment from Byrnes.

"He'll have lots of opportunities, we hope," Spurrier said. "But again, we need to mix the pass with the run. We feel like we got some outstanding receivers, so you hope to do it both ways."

The game presents the chance for the Gamecocks to leave behind their last performance, the Papajohns.com Bowl loss to Connecticut.

Spurrier has been reminding the team about it regularly since January -- even throughout camp.

It's been exactly eight months since the 20-7 loss in frigid Birmingham, Ala. It'll certainly be hotter tonight. The Gamecocks hope to leave in better moods.

Reach Travis Haney at thaney@postandcourier.com, check out the Gamecocks blog at postandcourier.com/blogs/gamecocks and follow him on Twitter (@gamecocksblog).