South Carolina's dream season had closed with a 24-7 victory over Ohio State in the Outback Bowl, and before the celebrating kicked into full swing, Lou Holtz took the time to lay a few more bricks in the rebuilding of the program. "This win proves what we can do," he said to his players. "Now let's take it to another level. I'm not satisfied, and you shouldn't be either."
There is more promise in the air in Columbia, S.C., at the start of a new season than there has been in a decade. The Gamecocks began 2000 winless in their previous 21 starts; they ended it with an unshakable belief that they can win their first SEC crown since joining the league nine years ago. Some of the optimism stems from having 18 starters back, the most Holtz recalls ever having had in the 30 years he's been a head coach. "We realize that we have to keep everything in perspective," says senior quarterback Phil Petty, who threw only 10 interceptions in 315 attempts last season. "But we also know that we can play with anybody. We proved that last year."
The biggest question mark on offense is whether junior running back Derek Watson can stay out of trouble. Last season he rushed for 1,066 yards and was the SEC's leader in all-purpose yards (166.7 per game). But Holtz suspended him for the Outback Bowl after he wrecked teammate Teddy Crawford's car at 3 a.m. on Dec. 21. (Watson was convicted of driving with a suspended license.) In May, Holtz suspended Watson again after a female student claimed that he hit her in the arm. (Watson was charged with misdemeanor assault and battery, but his lawyers have asked that he be allowed to enter a pretrial intervention program that would erase the charge from his record.) On Sunday, Holtz said that the running back had "done everything we've asked him to do" and had therefore been reinstated. With Watson in the fold, junior Ryan Brewer returns to wideout. Brewer was named MVP of the Outback Bowl after rushing for 109 yards and catching three passes for 92 yards as Watson's replacement.
With eight starters back on defense, Holtz expects that unit to dominate as thoroughly as last year's, which finished sixth in the nation in scoring defense (15.8 points per game). "We have a chance to be good," says Holtz. "We're not in the driver's seat yet, but we're now in the car."