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Gamecocks, Aggies ready to kick things off
South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier gestures to his team during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Florida Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C. South Carolina won 19-14. (AP Photo/ Richard Shiro)
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Steve Spurrier has noticed the makeover No. 9 South Carolina's home stadium has been given since he arrived almost a decade ago. He hopes to add a Southeastern Conference championship banner to the decorations this season.
"We don't have many championships to brag about, so we have had a lot of super individual players and their records up on the (stadium) wall," he said.
There's also an 85-foot tall banner of Spurrier hanging down outside Williams-Brice Stadium, where the Gamecocks will look to extend their nation-best 18-game home win streak when they open against No. 21 Texas A&M.
The school has spent about $200,000 to spruce up the stadium, including landscaping, posters and other decorative upgrades. Spurrier understands that it's up to his players to keep fans coming.
"Coaches and players, we can't worry too much about what happens outside," he said. "We have to worry about what happens on the field. That's our major thought right there."
Spurrier has handled that well in recent years, including an unprecedented run of three consecutive 11-2 seasons. Before that, the Gamecocks had only reached double-digit wins (1984, 10-2) once since starting football in 1892.
For Spurrier, things changed when he and his staff began persuading the state's best talent to play for the Gamecocks. South Carolina has sent several stellar players into the NFL's early rounds in recent years, including Buffalo cornerback Stephon Gilmore, Chicago receiver Alshon Jeffery and Houston defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the NFL's No. 1 selection last May.
"They want to play for winners. They want to play where you can graduate your players, guys stay out of trouble, do the right things, and we got a track record for that now," said Spurrier, 69. "So we got to keep pushing and pushing and see if we can win an SEC someday."
Spurrier has used a different tact for success at South Carolina than during his pass-happy, title-winning time at Florida in the 1990s, counting on ball control and a strong defense to win games.
Count on seeing that again this season with 1,000-yard rusher Mike Davis in the backfield and enough returning defenders to contain opponents.
Things to watch when No. 9 South Carolina plays No. 21 Texas A&M:
WHERE'S JOHNNY? Texas A&M won't have dynamic, flashy, lightning rod Johnny Manziel at quarterback after the Heisman Trophy winner left for the NFL draft after last season. Sophomore Kenny Hill, who threw for 183 yards and a touchdown in four games last year, takes over under center and doesn't seem to court attention like his predecessor. Hill has kept a low profile and says he's not likely to talk about winning the job until after facing the Gamecocks.
TWO CLOWNEYS: Each side is touting a Clowney clone in its defense. For Texas A&M, it's five-star freshman Myles Garrett, a 6-foot-5, 255-pound speedster who will see plenty of action against South Carolina. The Gamecocks will replace Clowney at defensive end with 6-6 Darius English, who's put on 40 or so pounds while maintaining his speed.
PURE SPEED: Texas A&M will also debut freshman receiver Speedy Noil, who has been compared to former versatile Florida speedster Percy Harvin. Noil brings the Aggies a different threat than they had a year ago with top receiver Mike Evans, among three first-round NFL picks along with Manziel and offensive lineman Jake Matthews this past spring.
THE DIXONS: South Carolina is replacing three-fourths of its defensive front from a year ago with Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton joining Clowney in NFL camps this summer. The Gamecocks are going to the Dixon family to fill much of that void. Gerald Dixon Jr. will start at defensive tackle while his half brother Gerald Dixon — their father is former South Carolina and NFL linebacker Gerald Dixon Sr. — gets the start at defensive end. Darius English takes over Clowney's end spot.
SEC NETWORK: Unless you hate sports or have lived under Clemson's famed Howard's Rock, you probably know this game is the first broadcast by the recently launched SEC Network. It's all hands on deck with network personalities Tim Tebow and Paul Finebaum here for the all-out promotional blitz.
WHAT'S AT STAKE: A strong start to the Southeastern Conference season. The Gamecocks were picked this summer as favorites to win the SEC's Eastern Division and nothing would mark them as a title contender than a victory over Texas A&M, which has gone 10-6 its first two conference seasons. The Aggies are seeking to open SEC play 1-0 for the first time in three years since joining the league.
KEY MATCHUP: South Carolina QB Dylan Thompson against Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett. Thompson is a senior taking over for Connor Shaw, who led the Gamecocks to three straight 11-2 seasons. But Garrett is a five-star freshman at 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds who has drawn comparisons to former Gamecock star Jadeveon Clowney. The Aggies hope they can generate pressure to disrupt Thompson's rhythm.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Texas A&M: QB Kenny Hill. The sophomore is taking over for Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Hill completed 16 of 22 for 183 yards and a touchdown in four games last year. South Carolina: RB Mike Davis. The junior tailback put up 100 yards or more in seven of South Carolina's first nine games before fading due to injuries as the season went on. Still, he finished with 1,183 yards, the fourth-highest single-season rushing mark in Gamecocks history, trailing two seasons Heisman winner George Rogers (1,894 yards in 1980, 1,681 yards in 1979) and Marcus Lattimore (1,197 yards in 2010).
FACTS & FIGURES: South Carolina has won a record 18 straight games at home entering this season. The mark is the longest current streak in the country. ... Texas A&M has gone 10-2 in games away from home under coach Kevin Sumlin, including a 2012 victory at Alabama. ... Steve Spurrier is seeking his 200th win as an SEC coach. He won 122 games in 12 seasons at Florida and has 77 victories since joining South Carolina. ... Game is the first to be broadcast on the just-launched SEC Network. The network will show Temple at Vanderbilt following the Aggies-Gamecocks game. ... Texas A&M fans in Columbia plan to have their traditional yell practice at midnight on the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse. ... Texas A&M has scored first in 23 of 26 games since coach Kevin Sumlin took over.