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January 25, 2012

NY writer 'comfortable' with title pick

Lenn Robbins of the New York Post caused a commotion in South Carolina last August when he surprisingly picked the Gamecocks to win the national championship.

Five months later, Robbins feels he made a sound selection, pointing to USC's first-ever 11-win season in school history and Top 10 final ranking as evidence of how close USC came to reaching the promised land.

"I feel very comfortable with the pick," Robbins told Gamecock Central recently. "I put a lot of time into it. Obviously, my paper was supportive enough to put some money into it and sent me down there (he attended USC's Media Day in early August)."

When he sat down last summer to put together his pre-season ranking, two things about the Gamecocks stood out to Robbins - running back Marcus Lattimore and a championship-caliber defense.

Lattimore was on his way to a 1,500-yard rushing season when he was hurt in Week 7 at Mississippi State and the defense finished No. 3 overall in total defense.

"I thought they had a terrific season," Robbins said. "I did not pick them number one to stir up any publicity or anything like that. I thought they had been really good defensively for a couple of years. They had a big-time player in (Marcus) Lattimore and you need that if you're going to win the national championship. And they play in the SEC, which means that if you get to the SEC championship game and win it, you're playing for the national title."

Had USC beaten Auburn at home in late September, and everything else stayed the same, the Gamecocks would have reached the SEC Championship game for the second straight year. But the 16-13 setback, together with Georgia's undefeated run through the SEC (the Bulldogs didn't have to face LSU, Alabama or Arkansas), kept the Gamecocks at home on the first Saturday in December.

Robbins understands the magnitude of the loss to Auburn, but contends USC had a sensational season considering the dual losses of both Lattimore and QB Stephen Garcia around mid-season.

"I thought the East was wide open," he said. "If not for one loss, they're in Atlanta. When I looked at them on paper, I thought they had a fair schedule, a dominant player (Lattimore), a solid defense and I thought they were ready to win.

"But once they lost Garcia and then Lattimore, I thought 11 wins exceeded any expectations. What they did after losing Lattimore in particular was nothing short of terrific. I thought (USC head coach Steve) Spurrier did one of the terrific coaching jobs we've seen."

Robbins is optimistic for several reasons about USC's chances to make a national splash in 2012, beginning with Spurrier, who turns 67 in April but doesn't appear to be slowing down from a coaching perspective.

"When you boil it right down, there are just a handful of coaches that have a knack for play-calling, whether it be on offense or defense," Robbins said. "He's one of those guys. Spurrier is one of the brilliant offensive minds in college football. He looked at what he had (after Lattimore's injury) and adjusted.

"I think it's a compliment to the program and where it is that you can lose that kind of a player and be able to implement a new system and have some young kids execute that system pretty well. Spurrier figured out a way to get it done."

Most "way too early" pre-season polls for 2012 rank USC in the Top 10. The defense should be strong again and the return of a healthy Lattimore should boost the offense behind emerging quarterback Connor Shaw.

"I certainly think right now they are a perennial Top 30 program," Robbins said. "You have maybe 10 programs that you know are always going to be there. Alabama isn't going anywhere. I don't see LSU falling. Southern Cal should always be there. Then you're looking at about 20 teams where injuries, the schedule and bounces of the ball are important. I think South Carolina is right there. I'm interested to see what the impact of losing Ellis Johnson is going to be. He created that defense and a mindset on that team of how you play defense.

"Knowing Lattimore and the kind of kid he is, he will work like heck to get back. Shaw is clearly going to be one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC, and there are going to be several next year. For me, the wild card is what that defense does without Ellis Johnson."

With the technological advances of modern medicine, Robbins believes Lattimore should be ready to go by the start of pre-season camp.

"They've done a lot with ACL and MCL injuries. Guys are coming back quicker and stronger than ever before," Robbins said. "He is clearly an elite athlete, which helps in the recovery process. I hope they err on the side of caution and don't rush him back."

As the rest of the country has discovered, the SEC is the most dominant and powerful college football conference around. Like many other analysts, Robbins believes it will take a lot to end the SEC's national championship streak.

"Because of the level of talent, the expectations, the media attention, the passion of the fans, what you go through playing in the SEC, there is the SEC and then just two or three programs around the country that are operating at that level," Robbins said. "It's clearly the dominant conference and it's hard to imagine a championship game not having a SEC team in it anytime soon."

Robbins eagerly anticipates returning to Columbia in the near future. Why? He fell in love with Krispy Kreme doughnuts during his weekend trip to South Carolina's capital city last August.

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D. McCallum

South Carolina NEWS


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