No. 9 South Carolina hosts No. 21 Texas A&M Thursday night
This isn’t your grandpa’s South Carolina.
After years of mediocrity since joining the Southeastern Conference in 1992, the Gamecocks have established themselves as a national power with top-10 finishes in the final BCS rankings in each of the last three years and 33 wins over that span.
Now that winning isn’t a surprise, expectations for the Gamecocks are higher than ever. South Carolina was picked by the SEC coaches to win the East and represent the division in December’s SEC title game, marking a significant change from the beginning of head coach Steve Spurrier’s tenure.
“Obviously we were very similar the first five years. We had an 8-5 (record) and a 6-6, but we were basically 7-5 and we usually lost the bowl game,” Spurrier said. “And then all of a sudden, I think our facility improvement helped. I think maybe it helped get better assistant coaches, and then we got better players.”
Other notable preseason predictions for South Carolina include Jeremy Fowler of CBSSports and the new SEC Network’s Greg McElroy tabbing the Gamecocks to win the conference. Former Dallas Cowboys and current SEC Network pundit Marcus Spears went as far as to name South Carolina the national champions.
But for Spurrier, that’s all just white noise.
“I don’t think it makes a huge difference,” he said. “It’s just talking season. Talking season is about over now.”
While the head coach has the blinders firmly in place for himself and the team, it’s hard to ignore the upward trend in South Carolina’s football program; the team’s 18-game home winning streak is the longest in the nation.
Last year, South Carolina was the only school to defeat six teams in the regular season that went on to win bowl games, including BCS winners Central Florida and Clemson.
But according to senior quarterback Dylan Thompson, staying grounded is crucial to the Gamecocks’ success in 2014.
“I think right now we’re all feeling pretty good. But we’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “Coach does a good job of staying on us.”
With Spurrier set to roam the sidelines for his 10th season at South Carolina this year, it’s hard not to be confident about Thursday’s game against the Aggies. During his tenure in Columbia, the Head Ball Coach has won nine out of nine season openers.
And that statistic is made all the more impressive by the level of competition the Gamecocks tend to schedule in week one compared to many other schools in the country. During the streak, the South Carolina has played power conference schools like North Carolina and North Carolina State, as well as SEC rivals Vanderbilt.
“I don’t know what it is,” Spurrier said. “We have been fortunate in the openers. We haven’t always played extremely well, but the other team hasn’t played extremely well either.”
BUILDING A PROGRAM
The Gamecocks’ opponent Thursday is in the midst of a renaissance of their own within the football program. Less than three years ago, Texas A&M was still seen nationally as second-fiddle to the perennial powerhouse Texas Longhorns, and the Aggies were falling behind rising powers like TCU and Texas Tech. But since Kevin Sumlin took over before the 2012 season, he has won more games in his first two years than any coach in program history.
With the help of a dynamic quarterback named Johnny Manziel, Sumlin and the Aggies have compiled a 20-6 record in that timespan.
But there’s a man behind the scenes that has also played an instrumental role in Texas A&M’s revival. A little less than seven months after hiring Sumlin away from the Houston Cougars, the Aggies brought in a new Athletics Director to oversee their transition into the SEC, whose name may ring a bell to Gamecock fans.
Eric Hyman came to College Station after seven years at South Carolina.
Spurrier said Hyman helped position the Gamecocks near the top of college football before leaving Columbia for a similar project at Texas A&M.
“Eric Hyman did an excellent job of getting our facilities up to par,” Spurrier said. “Now we’re able to recruit the best players in our state and then players in the other states. They want to play for winners. They want to play where you can graduate your players. Guys stay out of trouble, do the right things, and we’ve got a track record for that now.”
Spurrier isn’t wrong; where Hyman has gone, recruiting success has followed.
In 2013 the Aggies brought in the 11th-best recruiting class, according the Rivals.com. By 2014 they had the sixth-ranked class and Texas A&M’s class of 2015 currently sits at No. 5.
We often say one of the hardest things to do in football is to remain motivated after achieving success.
But after three straight seasons matching the best win total in school history, the Gamecocks sound eager to take it a step further.
“We’ve got a sign up in the locker room in the meeting room: ‘The price of victory is high, but so are the rewards,’” Thompson said. “I think [Spurrier] does a good job reminding us day in and day out that we’ve just got to stay hungry, stay humble and just keep working.”
The South Carolina fan base has found a way to stay hungry, as well. There’s been a shift in the attitude of Gamecock fans toward their team, and a winning program is no longer hoped for.
South Carolina’s last three historic seasons have all ended in bowl victories, but none have seen the Gamecocks earn a berth in the SEC Championship game.
But by many accounts, South Carolina is poised to do that and more in 2014.
“That’s why you have more than one goal in life, and more than one goal each year,” Spurrier said. “We’ve hit a bunch of those, but we have not won an SEC yet. That’s a big one we hope to do someday.”