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Year of the Gamecock?

The schedule could be in their favor; Wright vs. Leak

Posted: Wednesday July 12, 2006 12:59PM; Updated: Wednesday July 12, 2006 3:12PM
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Steve Spurrier enjoyed surprising success in his first season at South Carolina, going 7-5.
Steve Spurrier enjoyed surprising success in his first season at South Carolina, going 7-5.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
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His innovative offense and unmistakable personality took the college football world by storm in the 1990s, and his return to the sport a year ago was one of the most hotly discussed offseason topics. For the first time in his career, however, Steve Spurrier seems to be flying under the radar, a phenomenon that puzzles Mailbag reader Michael of Los Angeles:

Given the fact that South Carolina always plays Georgia tight, Florida has a monster of a schedule and Tennessee is trying to find itself again, don't you think the Gamecocks should be considered a threat to take the SEC East this year? Does no one fear Spurrier anymore???

The strange thing about The Ball Coach's surprisingly successful debut season in Columbia last year was that South Carolina seemed to win in such un-Spurrier-like fashion. With the exception of breakout freshman receiver Sidney Rice, the Gamecocks' offense wasn't exactly the second coming of the '96 Gators, ranking 100th out of 117 teams nationally in total yards. That Spurrier's boys were able to beat Florida and Tennessee and come within two points of Georgia was a tribute to the defense. With seven starters from that unit departed -- including All-America safety Ko Simpson, NFL first-round cornerback Johnathan Joseph and standout linebacker Ricardo Hurley -- my initial instinct is to say that this season South Carolina won't fare much better than last year's 7-5 team. The offense will most assuredly be improved, but the defense will likely take a step back.

But take a look at the Gamecocks' schedule. If ever there was a year for South Carolina to step up and finally claim its first division title, this might be it. Three of its four conference road games are at Mississippi State, Kentucky and Vanderbilt (the fourth is at Florida). Are you kidding me? If the Gamecocks can take care of business in those and manage to knock off Georgia or Auburn at home during the first full month of the season, watch out. Their other home foes, Tennessee and Arkansas, will be tough but definitely beatable.

Wouldn't it be something if Spurrier's much-anticipated return to Gainesville on Nov. 11 -- the Gamecocks' conference finale -- was for a trip to the SEC championship game? Something tells me you'll be hearing plenty about him by then.

What is your take on Northwestern hiring Pat Fitzgerald as head coach? It seems like an inspired hire. Do you think he will have success like he did as a player?
-- Tom Semones, Cincinnati

With the obvious exception of a Joe Paterno or Bobby Bowden, I can tell you that no head coach in the country more personifies the program he's leading than Fitzgerald. As a player, he was the consummate overachiever, turning himself into a two-time All-America despite lacking the pure physical ability to get drafted by an NFL team. Given Northwestern's extreme disadvantages to most of its Big Ten peers, overachieving is pretty much the school's mantra. Fitzgerald is revered there, and, in the wake of the Randy Walker tragedy, Wildcats fans figure to rally behind him.

That said, I think Fitzgerald and the program are in for some rough sledding the next couple of years. At 31, without even coordinator experience, Fitzgerald has a ton of learning to do on the job. The responsibilities of a head coach are drastically different from those of an assistant. I'm sure Fitzgerald learned a lot observing mentors Walker and Gary Barnett, but it's simply not the same as experience. I was thinking about this recently: I'm about the same age as Fitzgerald, and I'd like to think I'm pretty knowledgeable about my profession. But if something were to happen to SI.com's venerable managing editor, Paul Fichtenbaum, and for some strange reason the powers-that-be decided to promote me, a lowly writer, to take his place (I can hear the laughter cascading through the Time & Life Building's 32nd floor already), I'm sure I would be completely lost at first.

Give Fitzgerald a couple of years to adjust to his new role, however, and I think he could have a tremendous impact on that program. He'll command the respect of his players, and recruits are already drawn to his personality and energy. You're looking at a guy who, if all goes well, could be the head coach at Northwestern for a long, long time.