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August 3, 2011

Commentary: How to handle 'The Year'



"I can't hardly wait."
--------------- THE REPLACEMENTS

And so it begins.

I'm sure a massive crowd will jam the left side of The Proving Grounds tonight, braving the Hell-on-Earth atmosphere of Columbia for the privilege and honor of standing in what feels like a 3-foot area, cordoned by a yellow rope. There won't be any dynamic play packages designed tonight, there won't be any play-booking for the Florida game.

It will only be 105 or so young men, in jerseys, shorts and helmets, not going too hard because today is about getting used to the practice routine, while a large group of mostly garnet-clad people stands to one side and adoringly applauds.

This is The Year.

I can't recall a season at South Carolina that opened with more anticipation than this one. Maybe 1970, the year after an Atlantic Coast Conference championship? (I don't know, I wasn't alive). Perhaps 1985, after the program's greatest (by win total) season? Could it be 1988 or 2001, each a season after a great year? Maybe any year under Steve Spurrier?

Being around this program as much as I have, there's always the talk of next year. Coming into this season -- and from talking to regular-Joe fans, coaches, players, Board of Trustees members, administrators -- they all agree that next year is this year.

This is the one. The one they've been waiting on. Everyone hopes -- or knows, rather -- that this is the Gamecocks' best chance to burst onto the national scene and stay there for a while. With the baseball team breaking through the glass ceiling of major national championships, the word is out that USC isn't doomed to a life of mediocrity anymore.

If the flag-carrying team of the university can do that as well, this charmed life of the past three years keeps adding milestones. It should be a fun ride.

What I'm wondering is how the reaction will be at the first sign of trouble. Simply from covering this team for a number of years, it's very difficult to imagine the Gamecocks going undefeated. That's no problem in itself -- a team with a loss can still win a national championship -- but I'm curious as to how all of the passion will be with an early loss to, say, Georgia or heaven forbid, Navy.

Will that be the point where the boo-birds come out of the corners, saying it was only a matter of time? Will the massive support and dream of raising that big crystal football evaporate in wisps of dreamy thoughts?

More importantly, should it happen, will the Gamecocks tremble and begin to think about the program's history? I doubt it, since most of these guys aren't nearly old enough to remember the struggles and even if told, wouldn't pay much attention.

The desire to win is there from the fan base, and the team -- at least publicly -- is expressing the same. There has been major commitment for off-season workouts, and it's automatically a relief to attend practice today and not have to wonder who's there and who's not due to the NCAA looking around (another bonus if Shaq Wilson fully practices and finishes today, something he couldn't do last year).

It's exactly one month until the Gamecocks travel to Charlotte for the season-opener. No games will be won in the month, only contests to see who deserves to play in the games. Fans will be able to see an early glimpse of what they're expecting today and perhaps get a better feeling for what they'll see during the season.

It should be eye-opening, if not in reality at least in perception.

This is The Year.

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