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SPURRIER IS READY TO WIN BIG

Coach Steve Spurrier says South Carolina has become a conference contender.

It's time.

When he took over at South Carolina three years ago, Steve Spurrier arrived at SEC Media Days declaring the Gamecocks had a long way to go, but he was certain one day they'd be a football force to reckon with in the SEC.

If Spurrier's demeanor on Wednesday is any indication, what he and nearly everyone else in the SEC believed was eventually coming may finally have arrived.

South Carolina as a contender.

A serious, legitimate, contender.

With the air of confidence he became legendary for at Florida, Spurrier told reporters Wednesday the Gamecocks are no longer interested in being the close, but not quite good enough squad. Riding the wave of a stellar recruiting class and a strong group of returning veterans, this year, they plan to be in the hunt for a conference title - just like the other perennial powers.

"The first couple of years we felt like our goal was to win more than we lose," Spurrier said. "We've raised our goals this year. We're going to try to win the conference. We feel like we've really increased our talent level. We've added a lot of players that we think are at a pretty close level with Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.

"We need to come to the ballpark felling like we're just as good as Florida, Georgia and Tennessee and that we can play with those guys."

It's not like you shouldn't have seen it coming. Since Spurrier stunned Gator fans by taking the South Carolina job after his brief stint in the NFL, the Gamecocks have finished second in the SEC East, are 1-1 in bowl games, defeated Clemson for the first time since 1996 and beat Florida for the first time since 1939.

South Carolina also increased its win total from six the year before he arrived, to seven and eight respectively in his first two seasons. In February, South Carolina picked up a top-10 recruiting class.

His desire to change the "attitude" of Gamecocks' players and fans appears to be working.

"When you've got a coach who believes in you, you're automatically going to believe in yourself," senior linebacker Casper Brinkley said. "Last year, he said we're going to win more games than we did the previous year - and we did. This year he said we're going to try and be conference champs. And we believe him. He's saying this, he's a legendary coach, so he knows what he's talking about. If he's saying it, we're going to do everything we can to make it happen."

South Carolina returns 17 starters, and quarterback Blake Mitchell, who threw for 1,759 yards in nine games (six starts). Though Mitchell lost his starting job during the season, Spurrier said he believes it made him a better quarterback.

"My experience coaching quarterbacks, once you bench them they come back better," said Spurrier, who cited former UF and now Chicago Bears quarterback Rex Grossman as a prime example. "But some coaches don't like to bench them. I'm hoping that's what happened to Blake. A little time on the bench, hopefully he'll see the game better. Hopefully he'll have a big year for us."

The Gamecocks return 10 starters on a defense that allowed 18.7 points per game. But running back Cory Boyd said opponents may be surprised by the offense.

"If people want to think we're just a running offense, that's fine, but we know we're a balanced offense," said Boyd, who rushed for 823 yards last season. "As the season goes along, you'll see some flashes from some of these young guys. It's going to be fun to see how this stuff unfolds."

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