"Just take your place in the driver's seat."
----------------------------------------- SNIFF 'N' THE TEARS
Here it is.
After 246 days, more talk of "Wait til next year," a couple of suspensions and the commitment of one can't-miss recruit, it's here. South Carolina, christened as the No. 12 team in the country and one that is predicted to make Led Zeppelin-esque noise in 2011, officially begins the season in just seven short hours.
Up until Thursday afternoon, the pitch was getting to that fever level, or that "100 percent" that cramped basketball gymnasiums always have so they can see how loud the crowd can get. Gamecock Nation was bursting at the seams to get to Charlotte and see this year's edition of the Gamecocks lay waste to the first of many overmatched opponents.
Being a rather passionate bunch, Steve Spurrier's announcement -- what was it again? -- sent a few shockwaves through the community until calmer heads prevailed and ration (or something approaching it) was restored. No matter who starts under center tonight, he'll have so many tools around him that he would have to try to really screw up.
No, after so many offseasons cursing the fates that made all of you Gamecocks instead of Fighting Irish or Trojans or Wolverines or Gators, you now have a winner. If this team only plays half as well as it's capable of, you'll all still be enjoying an after-Christmas holiday at a major U.S. city.
I'll be right there with you, writing one of two tales -- how the Gamecocks have arrived at the brink of glory, or how the Gamecocks are finishing up a good season, but not the one that everyone expected.
This team takes care of its business and simply plays to its talent, there will be no reason for me to start thinking about that second one.
I've never been one of those sportswriters to go game-by-game through the season, predicting win/loss and score while it's still August. There are too many things that can happen on the next day of practice for me to begin realistically thinking how USC will match up with Tennessee a couple of days before Halloween.
What I do is look at the Gamecocks' schedule and group the games into three categories -- Definite Wins, Definite Losses and Too Close to Call. This year, I have no Definite Losses and only a couple Too Close to Calls.
Of course preseason predictions aren't worth the paper they're not written on, and that goes the same for any preseason accolades for individuals. Everybody's at square one in terms of competing for personal honors, and while some teams began on Thursday or Friday, almost every team will be fully into the season after tonight.
What the Gamecocks have to do is take advantage of what they have. There are enough weapons in every phase of the game so any week-by-week troublesome spot can be overcome or at least equaled by the others. It would have to take a complete breakdown for USC to get dogged out by any opponent on the schedule, and having to game-plan for this bunch of Gamecocks isn't something that will be done in an hour so the opposing coach can catch "The Office."
This is the one that long-suffering fan base has been waiting on. There were glimpses last year, sitting at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and watching Marcus Lattimore relentlessly carve up that Florida defense, before taking the after-game microphone, still looking hardly winded and still wearing full pads, and proclaiming that this was why he picked USC. The more I look back at that Alabama game, the more I realize how completely dominant the Gamecocks were that day.
The baseball team has proven that the ceiling into national-championship land can be broken at USC. The Gamecocks' football team, the most visible and most beloved program on campus despite never having that much success, is poised to also rise through it.
In seven hours, Game 1. That becomes 11 more in the regular season. There could (should?) be two more after that.
This is the one, the one that has been promised, dreamed of, hoped for and has at last arrived. I'll see you after Christmas, and if this team does what I think it's truly capable of, we'll share a plate of Cajun.
Here it is.
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