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South Carolina Tries to Check the Last Box // SEC 2012: The New SEC

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Steve Spurrier took the job at South Carolina because he wanted to do things that had never been done. He's checked off a lot of things in that regard over the past couple of years. In 2010, he delivered the school's first SEC East division title. Months later he signed the nation's top-rated recruit, another first for the school. Last fall, he set a school record by winning 11 games in a season for the first time.

The primary "first" for the school that Spurrier had in mind has remained elusive. "Why not us?" asked Spurrier in his introductory press conference in Columbia, setting out there the goal of winning an SEC championship. He came closest in 2010, obviously, but his Gamecocks wilted on the big stage and were blown out by Auburn far worse than they lost to the Tigers in the regular season. They could have played for the conference title again last year, scheduling differences vis-à-vis Georgia be damned, if they had only taken care of business at home against a rebuilding Auburn squad. I don't think South Carolina would have beaten LSU in Atlanta, mind you, but you surely can't win the league championship if you don't play in that game.

In trying to achieve that elusive conference title, South Carolina will have to deal with a new problem that's good to have: heavy losses in the NFL Draft. The team lost six starters to the big league, including first rounders Stephon Gilmore and Melvin Ingram and second rounder Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery is the biggest loss of them all. Gilmore was sometimes inconsistent, and the team is set at DE with Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney. No one left on the roster is as physical or as talented as Jeffery is.

That said, a big key to Spurrier's run-based offense (that will never sound right) is the fact that the team has Marcus Lattimore around for another year. It, of course, would be best if he could avoid injury problems again, but he's the kind of offensive cornerstone that a team can win a division on. Connor Shaw was the fifth most efficient quarterback in conference play last year, and he was brilliant in the team's season-closing wins over Clemson and Nebraska (although Jeffery was a big reason why in the bowl). If he can continue his improvement, especially since he won't share practice snaps with Stephen Garcia for part of the year, then the offense will rush its way to near the top of the league.

The nominally biggest change on the team is one on defense. Ellis Johnson left to take over as Southern Miss head coach, so Spurrier promoted Lorenzo Ward to run the show. He plans to run the same 4-2-5 scheme, so things probably won't be all that different. No two guys run the same scheme exactly the same way, though, so there is room to improve or regress depending on how good a coordinator Ward ends up being.

It's going to be a tough road to hoe for the team this year, but the sense of urgency is there. A team like South Carolina only gets so many good chances to make a run for a conference championship, and this year is one of those chances.