COLUMBIA -- Being a Gamecocks fan is so full of contradictions you need directions to the next emotion.

Martina McBride meets heavy metal.

Would you like some beets on that pizza?

South Carolina looks like it might have its best season of the Steve Spurrier Era this year.

But the Sept. 2 opener against Southern Mississippi is less than a month a way at Williams-Brice Stadium and the game isn't sold out.

The Gamecocks earned a decisive 34-17 braggin' rights victory over Clemson last November, but Spurrier mostly talks about the 20-7 Papajohns.com Bowl loss to Connecticut.

Quarterback Stephen Garcia with his friendly grin, strong arm and quick feet is a 6-2, 230-pound contradiction.

In one room at the Gamecocks' official preseason media day on Sunday,

Spurrier explained why a rising junior quarterback that started all 13 games in 2009 was not chosen to appear on the cover of the new South Carolina media guide along with seniors Cliff Matthews and Patrick DiMarco, junior Shaq Wilson and sophomores Stephon Gilmore and Alshon Jeffery.

"Those guys made all conference or all something or other," the Head Ball Coach said. "Maybe we thought Stephen didn't belong on there, how's that? When he earns the right to get on there, we'll put him on there."

In another room, Garcia was saying South Carolina players have a goal for the season.

"Hopefully, a national championship."

Pretty big jump from 7-6, someone pointed out.

"It's a huge jump," Garcia agreed, "but that's the kind of confidence I think this team has."

Grilling with Garcia

So what to make of all the mixed signals?

Mostly good stuff.

Spurrier is smart to focus on the cold afternoon in Birmingham when the offense was awful against Connecticut instead of an odd Clemson win in which the ball bounced mostly South Carolina's way.

He has turned up the "accountability" and "leadership" volume, often with Garcia in mind.

"I had a mediocre year last year," Garcia said. "With Coach Spurrier, you can't be mediocre and play for him. I took that to heart and I'm just going to try and do everything I can and improve."

Garcia responded this summer by, according to all accounts, working harder on his own and in football film rooms.

He hosted unofficial team cookouts.

Sometimes grilled by Spurrier, Garcia did the grilling at his place.

"Yeah," he said, "I do chicken, steak, pretty much anything but seafood. I don't do seafood."

Sounds like Leadership 101.

Or maybe a junior-level course.

Main agreement

"I haven't been hard on him at all," Spurrier insisted Sunday when asked about Garcia.

Spurrier went on about negative yardage plays and Garcia's role in those mistakes last month at SEC Football Media Days in Birmingham, and he mentioned the same things Sunday. He also emphasized a Papajohns.com Bowl debacle evidently horrible enough to cost the bowl its sponsorship (now the Birmingham Bowl).

"He didn't have a very good last game," Spurrier said. "I didn't have a very good last game either. Be hard on me, too, if you want to. Stephen has been told what he's expected to do now. All of our players, I think, realize now there are backup players."

Of course, none of this -- the shadow of freshman quarterback Connor Shaw, grilled chicken and steaks or confidence chatter -- matters much.

"We have to wait until Sept. 2 to see," Spurrier said.

"I think this first game is going to be pretty big for us," Garcia said.

On that crucial point, there is no contradiction.

Reach Gene Sapakoff at gsapakoff@postandcourier.com or (843) 937-5593.