SI.com college football writer Stewart Mandel shares his commentary, analysis and random tidbits on the latest developments around the country.
7/25/2007 05:25:00 PM
Spurrier Relegated to Opening Act
In his third season at South Carolina, Steve Spurrier believes he has a team that can contend for the SEC title.
HOOVER, Ala. -- To truly appreciate the depth of passion surrounding SEC football, you really need to spend a fall Saturday at a place like Jordan-Hare or Sanford Stadium. Attending SEC Media Days, however, will give you a pretty good taste.
Only here, at the Wynfrey Hotel just outside Birmingham, can you watch 800 sportswriters pack into a ballroom to hear Tommy Tuberville’s thoughts on the upcoming season. Only hear can you watch a pack of backpedaling cameramen follow Houston Nutt from room to room like the paparazzi stalk Paris Hilton. Only here can you walk through a hallway lined with radio stations from around the South doing live remote broadcasts of the festivities. And only here can you see the disappointed look on the faces of the football-touting autograph seekers in the lobby who would have preferred to see Darren McFadden descending the escalator, not you.
The SEC’s annual preseason media event has long been known for its circus-like atmosphere, and this year’s, not surprisingly, is the biggest zoo yet. Anytime you place such coaches as Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, Mark Richt and Les Miles under the same roof, there’s going to be more than a few flash bulbs going off.
In fact, it says something about just how star-studded this league has become that South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier’s session Wednesday afternoon seemed no more or less anticipated than the one before or after it. Back in the ‘90s, when he and his Florida program towered over this conference, the always-quotable Spurrier was the main attraction here. Now, as a coach of the defending Liberty Bowl champions, he’s in the rare position of lurking in the shadows.
And that’s just the way he likes it.
In his first two seasons with the tradition-starved Gamecocks, Spurrier went out of his way to temper expectations. “The first couple of years, our goal was to win more than we lose, and to win the bowl game would be a pretty good year for us,” said Spurrier, who went 15-10 in those first two seasons. Now, coming off a season-ending three-game winning streak in which QB Blake Mitchell finally put up the kind of numbers one might expect of a Spurrier-coached quarterback (including a 323-yard, four-touchdown performance against Houston in the bowl game) and having hauled in three straight highly regarded recruiting classes, the Ball Coach is changing his tune.
“This year, our goal is to win the conference,” said Spurrier. “We feel like we've really increased our talent level at South Carolina. We've added a lot of players that we think are at a pretty close level with Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. Obviously, you need to be at their level to win the conference.”
Mind you, South Carolina has won just one conference championship in its history, the 1969 ACC title. And those three teams Spurrier mentioned -- Florida, Georgia and Tennessee -- have won all 15 East Division titles.
But if ever there was a year for the Gamecocks to sneak its way to Atlanta, this might be it. The defending champion Gators are still loaded with talent but may be vulnerable early with a new starting quarterback and 10 new starters on defense. The Dawgs were up and down on both sides of the ball last year and remain fairly young. The Vols have questions at receiver and on defense.
Spurrier’s team, meanwhile, returns all but one starter on defense, and if Mitchell -- who looked like a different QB upon returning from one of Spurrier’s patented six-game benchings -- has a big senior season, South Carolina figures to improve on last season’s 8-5 record.
But will it be enough to overtake the conference’s traditional hierarchy? Not to mention Kentucky had the same 8-5 record as the Gamecocks last season and the Vanderbilt game is no longer a gimme for anyone.
“It will be a huge assignment,” he conceded. “We need to come to the ballpark feeling like we’re just as good as Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, that we can play with those guys, and we’ll see what happens.”
I enjoy Mandel's writing, and think he offers an unbiased approach to each conference, team, and journalistically does an excellent job of not playing favorites. Some writers you know who their favorite teams are, and their least favorite.
Regarding the Dawgs, they were up and down last year, I agree. But the key word phrase is LAST YEAR . UGA did lose to Vandy and Kentucky, granted, it shouldn't even have been close, but don't forget this fact either, UGA could have easily been 11-2 having beaten Vandy and Kentucky and IMO should have beat Florida in Jacksonville, but a Lumpkin fumble on their own 6 yd line was the deciding factor. The only game UGA got demolished was Tennessee. I'll never understand that game. Jumping out to a 24-7 lead and losing 51-33???
Either way, UGA had a rebuilding year and should have been 11-2 and they did it with a freshman QB. I recall a similar UGA team, the 1990 squad who also started a freshman QB named Eric Zier. My point is, didn't Zier break out in 1991, then dominated in 1992, only to break all the passing records at UGA?? I think it's safe to say Stafford will be very similar to that. All I got to say is I want to see all the media eat crow when UGA wins the SEC East this year.
I love it when UGA fans try to make excuses for their uneven performance. As a Gator fan, I'd be delighted if Stafford's career turned out exactly like Eric Zier's: 0-4 against Florida, and zero conference titles.
As far as last year's team: great team's don't get demolished anywhere, and good teams don't get demolished at home like Georgia was last year.
The bottom line is Mandel is right-every team in the SEC East has serious question marks, so an SEC East title is within SC's reach.
First year starters at QB always wind up costing a team a game or two, so I think Florida is going to get surprised at least once. (And albert, please think a little about how unlikely it is that 2 teams would meet 3 times in one year before you predict an LSU-UF Sugar Bowl.)
Tennessee just doesn't seem to play as consistently, although having Cutcliffe as offensive coordinator again seems to be steadying them out.
Bottom line- nobody's a sure bet in the SEC East right now.
Gators are going to have an explosive offense but their defense is questionable especially the cornerbacks. As a Gator alum, I hope the Gators are back in the SEC title game against LSU but SC could def be there instead. UGA doesn't know how to beat UF and can barely get to play Vandy or Kentucky. Please, they also barely won against a winless Colorado squad. They're not doing anything this year, again. What a suprise. Darth Visor could have a big year this year. Go Gators!
I cannot wait for Tim "The Lisping Lizard" to get his bell rung a couple of times by SEC linerbackers and safeties. It's gonna be AWESOME!!! If Mark Richt had gone with talent last year instead of an overmatched senior legacy who couldn't start for the bottom of the ACC at QB, Matt Stafford's rapid improvement wouldn't have happened in the last three games of the season, beating three top-16 ranked teams in a row, including Auburn at Jerdin-Hair [sic], it would have happened during that stretch of Missy St, Vandy, Florida, and Kentucky. If Mark Richt starts the better QB at the beginning of the season, Georgia goes 11-2 easy. Now, Matthew Stafford is poised to light up the leage, while The Lisping Lizard is set to become the next Casey Clausen, another forgettable golden boy who's hype was worse than his bite.
Georgia wins the East this year, and wins the SEC next year. But knowing how bad Les Miles is as a coach, we might win the SEC THIS year. I fear no Gator. And I definately don't fear The Lisping Lizard. He should fear a few safeties I know in the Tennessee, LSU, and Georgia secondary. All it takes is one good pop! Hah!
Stuart, if would be great if you could also write about football West of the Rockies. There is a conference out there called the Pacific 10 and they have the #1 team in the country and an extremely competitive conference from 3-8. Every team except for Stanford and WSU has a chance to finish in the top 3.
Hey New York... just in case you're new to this website, Mandel's been writing in accordance with each conference having their media days. Guess what? When the Pac-10 has their media day he will be writing pieces about them! Get with it and don't be so premature to criticize.
The only problem I have with the opening of this article is that you could replace the names of coaches in the SEC with coaches in the Big Ten and it would be the exact same thing, having been at a Big Ten Media day and I am sure the same could be be said for the Big 12, Pac-10 and ACC ... ie: Joe Paterno, Jim Tressel, Lloyd Carr, Kirk Ferentz, Ron Zook, etc.
The SEC is nothing but a bunch of whining coaches and fans year in and year out. The SEC play no one out of conference and when the SEC does they get beat down by 30 or 40 points. It's all about the money and not the talent anymore, kind of sad.
January 2007, Tempe, AZ. #2 ranked and thorougly dogged, massive underdog, and media-blasted Florida Gators 41, the UNREAL, OUT OF THIS WORLD, UNDEFEATED AND WHOLE SEASON #1 RANKED OHIO STATE BUCKEYES, 14. 41-14. Whoops.