Moments after the most successful season in school history (11-2) ended with a 30-13 victory over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Steve Spurrier told the celebrating South Carolina players in the locker room that the goal for 2012 was to win 12 games.
Nearly four months later, with spring practice in the rear view mirror, Spurrier remains optimistic about the Gamecocks achieving that objective even though they lost several key contributors from 2011 such as Melvin Ingram, Alshon Jeffery, Stephon Gilmore, Antonio Allen and Travian Robertson.
USC is 20-7 over the past two seasons, including 12-2 at Williams-Brice Stadium and 9-1 against SEC Eastern Division rivals. The Gamecocks return 89 percent of their rushing yards, 64 percent of their passing yards and 66 percent of their receiving yards from a year ago.
In addition, eight of the top 13 tacklers from last season return for the 2012 campaign, Spurrier's eighth as head coach. Overall, USC returns 13 starters from the first Gamecock team since 1958 to finish a season with four consecutive wins.
Four of the seven players (OL A.J. Cann, OL T.J. Johnson, FS D.J. Swearinger and DE Devin Taylor) that started all 13 games in 2011 return to the Gamecocks.
"We're looking forward to it. We have a lot of good players," Spurrier said Tuesday on the SEC spring media teleconference. "We should have a pretty good team. Our talent level here has certainly improved from what we've had in the past. That's why we've had a chance to win a bunch of games. Hopefully, we'll win an SEC (title) someday soon."
However, Spurrier recognizes the high quality of the group leaving the program. Two players (Ingram, Gilmore) are probable first-round draft picks, while Jeffery should go in the second round.
"We probably had the best group of players we've had," Spurrier said. "We won our close games, too. We lost one, but we won four out of five. That's how you go 11 and two. We were not a dominant team, but we had a collection of guys that I think will be very good pro players."
Spurrier said he "still thinks" Jeffery will "sneak into" the first round.
"He's a tremendous receiver with probably the best hands of any receiver I've ever coached," Spurrier said. "His ability to go up and catch (the football) in a crowd. Alshon is really something."
Absent those key players, USC enjoyed a "productive" spring, Spurrier said. But the final determination won't come until late August when USC faces Vanderbilt in the Thursday night season opener at Nashville.
"Once you start playing the real ballgames in August, you start figuring out if you had a pretty good spring and summer," Spurrier said. "We stayed healthy. Most of the young guys that have not played much got most of the scrimmage work and so forth."
The offense piled up some impressive numbers in the Garnet & Black game on April 14 (six QBs combined to complete 39-of-54 passes for 511 yards and six TDs), which Spurrier described as "encouraging," for the quarterbacks and receivers, but he acknowledged many first-teamers weren't on the field for most of the game.
The unanswered question is whether the offense's spring game success through the air will carry over into August when preparations for the upcoming season intensify over the course of 29 practices.
"We threw the ball and caught it better than we have in any spring game," Spurrier said. "We had the defense play just three different coverages. Usually, we don't look very good throwing it around, but we threw it and caught it extremely well.
"But, other than that, I don't know how much correlation there is between spring ball and the real season. Probably what the guys do over the summer getting prepared is maybe a little more important because we have three or four months until we actually play a game."
Spurrier is 55-35 (.611) in seven seasons with the Gamecocks - nine wins short of the school record for most career coaching wins (64) - and has taken USC to six bowl games, the best stretch in school history.
No other coach took the Gamecocks to more than three bowl games.
* Spurrier described the Arkansas situation in which Bobby Petrino was forced out as head coach as "sad." The Razorbacks hired John L. Smith as head coach for the 2011 season. "Bobby Petrino has an excellent track record as a football coach," Spurrier said. "It was sad how it developed. But sometimes stuff like that happens. John L. Smith is a proven coach. The players say they're happy with him coming."
* Spurrier said when he is approached by a junior about possibly declaring for the NFL Draft, he tries to "give them the facts." He advocates juniors applying to the NFL Undergraduate Advisory Committee for an evaluation, but sometimes those prove to be inaccurate. "All we try to do is give them the facts about staying in school if you're not a first-round pick, and all the statistics show you should stay," Spurrier said. "We let them make the decision. As a coach, I don't tell a kid that he needs to stay. I don't know of any coach that begs them to stay."
* Spurrier added that he can't fault draft-eligible juniors for deciding to go pro considering the amount of money being tossed around to coaches, league commissioners, and administrators. "When you play in college, everybody is making millions of dollars and they don't make hardly anything," he said. "They're anxious to go get paid a little bit." Spurrier said Melvin Ingram was paid $5,000 for an autograph signing session in Columbia last weekend. "These kids know there's some money out there," Spurrier said.
* Spurrier said he believed the SEC athletic directors and/or the presidents "will discuss a little bit" his proposal to determine conference records solely by divisional games. Spurrier contends his proposal, which has been widely scorned, eliminates from the equation the dice roll of conference scheduling. For example, USC must face LSU and Arkansas in 2012, while Georgia avoids Alabama, LSU and Arkansas for the second straight season. "You eliminate scheduling from determining who the division champion is," Spurrier said. "I think it's a good idea. We'll see how it works out."
* Spurrier said Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel and Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin are "proven coaches." Spurrier and Pinkel squared off in the 2005 Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La. Spurrier is familiar with Sumlin, as well, because he coached with Bob Stoops before becoming head coach at Houston.
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