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College Football Mailbag (cont.)

Posted: Wednesday August 1, 2007 12:52PM; Updated: Wednesday August 1, 2007 2:20PM
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Steve Spurrier
In his first two years at South Carolina, Steve Spurrier has compiled a 15-10 record.
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Steve Spurrier is saying the South Carolina Gamecocks are ready to challenge for the SEC title. Agree or disagree? He has definitely improved the play there, but is it enough to conquer the best conference in the land?
--Rick, Greenville, S.C.

Steve Spurrier happens to be one of the straightest shooters out there. He's also built up more than a little credibility in my book. So if he says it's a possibility, I'm inclined to agree with him.

On the surface, South Carolina is a team that went 3-5 in the SEC last year. But let's take a look back at how that season progressed. The Gamecocks started out dreadfully, with ugly wins over Mississippi State and Wofford sandwiched around an 18-0 loss to Georgia. On a Thursday night in late September, however, Spurrier's team came within five yards of taking No. 2 Auburn to overtime. There was a noticeable change. From there, they won road games at Kentucky and Vanderbilt, then lost by a touchdown to Tennessee, by six points to Arkansas and lost to eventual national champ Florida on a blocked last-second field goal. They finished the season by winning at Clemson and putting up 44 points on Houston in the Liberty Bowl.

In other words, they were the model of a team that got continually better from start to finish -- and 16 starters from that team return. They've obviously shown they can compete with the SEC's upper-echelon; it will now be a matter of winning some of those close games. I certainly think they're capable of winning the SEC East (as is nearly every team in that division). While on paper the Gamecocks are hardly on the same level as a team like LSU, anything can happen once you get to Atlanta.

There are probably a few devoted readers out there who, like me, are diehard fans of a team that is completely off the national radar. Mine is my alma mater, Utah State. There is nothing that fans such as me wouldn't love more than to have our teams discussed in columns such as yours, but there are too many obstacles to overcome to be relevant (lack of facilities, coaches who either fail or move on quickly to bigger programs, etc.) If you were in charge of one of these schools, what would you do to turn the program around? Please don't say "build a new stadium" or "hire a big-name coach for $1M-plus." I want to know if there is a realistic, within-budget solution.
--Shane Hart, Louisville

Well there are any number of examples out there that show it's possible -- including in your own back yard. Ten years ago, Louisville wasn't in much better shape than Utah State today, Boise State had just joined Division I-A and South Florida had yet to play its first football game. Now, every program faces its own unique circumstances and obstacles, and I'm not saying anyone can just wave a magic wand and become a top-25 team. In the case of your Aggies, it certainly doesn't help that they play in a 30,000-seat stadium in the middle of a recruiting wasteland. But then again, I wouldn't have guessed Idaho could become a recruiting destination, either.

I don't think you need to build a new stadium (though expansion wouldn't hurt) or hire a million-dollar coach. But it's no secret money plays a monumental role in big-time athletics, so you need an administration willing to sink some serious resources into football. And then, I know it sounds cliché, but the most important factor of all is having the right coach. He doesn't have to be a big name. Certainly Dan Hawkins wasn't, nor was Jim Leavitt. He needs to have a distinct vision, be a shrewd recruiter, be able to mold marginally talented athletes into productive Division I-A players, and, perhaps most importantly of all, hire a staff that operates on the same page as him.

All I can say is -- good luck with that.

Has a "West Coast" offense ever worked in the SEC? I ask because it seems new LSU offensive coordinator Gary Crowton used similar offensive styles at Oregon.
--Rusty Bergeron, Baton Rouge, La.

Just because a guy comes from the West Coast doesn't automatically mean he ran the "West Coast Offense." What Crowton ran at Oregon was a version of the increasingly common spread offense, which usually involves one or no tailbacks and four or five receivers. The West Coast Offense, by contrast, is far more traditional, often with two backs, a tight end and two receivers. There's a lot of confusion out there as to what exactly constitutes a "true" West Coast Offense, but its usual signatures are short drops, precision-timing passes and an endless array of formations and play variations. In honor of the departed Bill Walsh, the most noted West Coast guru in history, think Joe Montana's San Francisco 49ers.

The only attempt I know of to import the West Coast system into the SEC was when offensive coordinator Al Borges came to Auburn in 2004. Much was made that year of Borges' impact on the Tigers (when they went 13-0), but from what I've been told, that was a very, very simplified version. Borges' smartest move was simply getting Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown on the field at the same time. Meanwhile, despite much mockery when he first arrived, Urban Meyer has obviously showed that the spread is perfectly capable of working in the SEC (and we'll see more of the "spread-option" this year now that mobile Tim Tebow is the full-time starter), but I don't expect LSU to switch to a full-on spread. More likely, Les Miles will have Crowton run much the same, pro-style offense as predecessor Jimbo Fisher but mix in some elements of the spread -- particularly if new QB Matt Flynn shows he can run.

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