South Carolina Gamecocks (2000: 8-4)
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Coach and programLou Holtz, the charismatic 29-year coaching veteran, engineered one of the more memorable turnarounds in college football history. The Gamecocks went from a nightmarish 0-11 record in 1999 -- Holtz’s debut in Columbia -- to an 8-4 record last season that was close to being 9-3 or even 10-2.
Remember, too, that South Carolina began last season dragging the nation’s longest losing streak at 21 games and counting.
While nobody in the South Carolina camp seems to be resting on his laurels, the Gamecocks whipped through spring practice with a certain swagger in their step. They expect to be good this season, expect to be in title contention and expect to go into tough environments and win.
That’s a far cry from this time a year ago, when Holtz was drawing on everything in his vast bag of tricks to give his team a reason to believe. Twenty-one consecutive losses represent an eternity in football speak.
“It was a matter of rallying around each other, and that’s what coach Holtz made us realize,” senior quarterback Phil Petty (6-3, 208) said. “Going through that made us stronger. I don’t think this will be a team that rattles easily.”
As successful as the Gamecocks were a year ago, the disappointment of losing the three games in a row to Tennessee, Florida and Clemson lingers.
Holtz is confident there will be no such lulls this season. The Gamecocks return eight starters on offense and nine on a defensive unit that led the SEC in scoring defense and was sixth nationally last season.
“Talent-wise, we’ll be good,” Holtz said. “We can be competitive in the SEC. We can win and will win, and it’s not going to be an up-again, down-again thing. We were a Top 20 team, and I see no reason why we can’t be there again.
OffenseJunior running back Derek Watson (6-1, 212) has been in and out of trouble off the field and was suspended twice over the offseason. Watson -- who led the SEC with 166.7 all-purpose yards per game last season -- returned to the team in early August after getting cleared to return to school by a university panel.
The Gamecocks have several other options in the backfield, but none as electrifying as Watson. The bruiser is junior Andrew Pinnock (6-0, 248). A Jerome Bettis clone, Pinnock was the team’s second-leading rusher last season with 406 yards.
The other way the Gamecocks could go is with junior Ryan Brewer (5-10, 210), the star of the Outback Bowl. Brewer teed off on his home state Ohio State Buckeyes by totaling 214 all-purpose yards and scoring three touchdowns.
Petty isn’t spectacular when it comes to any one thing, but he does several things well. Most of all, he did the things necessary last season for the Gamecocks to win.
A starter since his sophomore season, Petty finished fifth in the SEC a year ago in total offense. He passed for 2,285 yards and eight touchdowns, but also had 10 interceptions.
Physically, South Carolina has made considerable progress in the trenches. Nine of the 10 offensive linemen on the two deep coming out of the spring weighed 290 pounds or more. More importantly, those nine also have playing experience or have started in a game.
Defense and special teamsComing out of the most recent spring workouts, the defense -- which will again be the strength of the team and one of fiercest in the league -- featured seven senior starters and three junior starters. Nine of the top 22 players on defense are juniors.
Charlie Strong, one of the country’s hottest up-and-coming defensive coordinators, is a head coach in the making. Even during the winless season, his defense finished fifth in the SEC in total defense and 20th nationally.
Replacing star Cleveland Pinkney at nose guard will be junior Langston Moore (6-1, 290). A starter at offensive guard as a freshman, Moore is a more active player than Pinkney and could develop into more of a big-play artist when it comes to sacks and tackles for loss.
All three of the Gamecocks’ starting linebackers are seniors, and all three have their unique styles. Kalimba Edwards, chosen to Playboy’s preseason All-American team and a consensus All-SEC selection last season, is a can’t-miss NFL prospect.
The other starter on the outside is senior Shannon Wadley (6-1, 235). He’s not as big as Edwards, but pound for pound is the best hitter on the team. His nickname is “Body Bags.”
The middle linebacker is senior Kenny Harney (6-2, 252). He’s back after fracturing his leg last season against Mississippi State.
Depth won’t be a problem in the secondary, where the Gamecocks return a bundle of players who have SEC experience. All five starters return from last season, including All-SEC cornerback Sheldon Brown (5-10, 192).
It goes without saying that the Gamecocks need to kick the ball better, both place kicking and punting. But, then, that’s why Holtz signed Josh Brown, the Maryland high school state record holder with 12 made field goals during his junior season.
Bottom lineHoltz, 64, certainly hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, not until his job is complete at South Carolina.
“I still believe we can build a top 10 program. We can build a program as good as any in the country. I think we’re on a firm foundation. That’s our goal and that’s our objective.”
Reaching that goal this season could be a tall order, especially with the schedule. The Gamecocks have to go to Georgia, Mississippi State, Arkansas and Tennessee and get Florida at home.
One thing’s for sure, too. They aren’t going to sneak up on anybody this season, especially not Georgia during the second week of the season. Even so, it’s the kind of team -- buoyed by Holtz’s legendary ability to motivate -- that could easily give the Bulldogs and Vols something to think about when it comes to that second spot in the East.