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Are South Carolina Gamecocks ready to vie for conference title?

Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 07:56 AM

They view them as bumps in the road that need to be eliminated. The comeback that fell short at LSU and the three first-half fumbles at Florida produced the only losses this season and dashed South Carolina's chances at an SEC championship and took them out of the hunt for a national title.

That was the goal coming into the season for the Gamecocks, the national title.

"Most definitely," senior linebacker Shaq Wilson said.

That's the goal coming into every season now that coach Steve Spurrier and several gifted recruiting classes have lifted the Gamecocks to dizzying heights when set against the backdrop of the program's history.

"We don't have nearly as many wins (as Michigan) historically," Spurrier said, "but we've done better lately."

No. 11 South Carolina (10-2) has a chance to match the school record for wins in a season today when it meets No. 19 Michigan (8-4) in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium.

The back-to-back seasons of at least 10 victories raised the total of double-digit win seasons in the program's history to three, and the program dates back to 1892. The Gamecocks have had a first team All-American in each of the last four seasons after having four in the 19 seasons from 1987 to 2005.

They played in the SEC Championship game in 2010, losing to eventual national champion Auburn. They have averaged 10 wins over the last three seasons.

Now, comes the hard part: Can South Carolina take the next step and compete with Alabama for conference supremacy? Can the Gamecocks join the likes of LSU, Florida and Georgia as usual suspects to contend for a spot in the conference title game?

"We're definitely knocking on the door, trying to kick it in," Wilson said. "First thing is to win the SEC Championship, because it's hard enough trying to win that. Once we win that the chips are going to fall. I definitely think this program is on the up."

Spurrier said the talk before every season is to reach a bowl game and, once there, win it. He said today's game is important for the senior class, whose 37 victories over the past four season topped the record 34 victories set by the 2011 seniors.

"From my freshman year, sophomore year, junior and senior, every class has gotten better," senior free safety D.J. Swearinger said. "My freshman year we had great players. The next year it seemed like we had even better players. It seems like the players are stepping it up to a whole other level. Now that we're winning we're getting the best players in the nation. The best players in the state, in past years, we didn't really get them. Now that we're winning we're starting to get those players."

Spurrier has helped turn the program around by signing the best high school players in the talent-rich state. All-American defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, injured running back Marcus Lattimore and freshman wide receiver Shaq Roland are former Mr. Footballs in the state of South Carolina.

Spurrier credits the 29 seniors on the roster for lifting the program to where it is today.

"Those guys have set some goals and gone after them," Spurrier said. "We haven't hit all of them. We didn't win the SEC, but they did win their division and have won a bunch of games, won the state championship (beating Clemson) several times. So they've accomplished a lot."

Senior defensive end Byron Jerideau wonders where this team would be right now if cornerback Stephon Gilmore, taken in the first round by Buffalo, and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, taken in the second round by Chicago, didn't leave early for last year's NFL Draft and if Lattimore hadn't suffered season-ending knee injuries the past two seasons.

"That would be pretty amazing if we still had them," Jerideau said.

Of course, that South Carolina is developing the type of player who can leave early for the NFL is another sign of the program's growth.

"We like that we're known as one of the best teams in the east, one of the top teams in the SEC. That's something that hasn't happened around here at South Carolina," Swearinger said. "The senior class did a great job their four years in helping to make this the program that we want to it to be."

Swearinger said he's proud of the legacy he and his fellow seniors will leave behind after today's game. He feels the class has brought the program closer to what is now the yearly goal of playing for a national title.

"We're very close," he said. "Last two, three years it has been those little plays that could have pushed us across. We make a play here, we make a play there and we could be in those games. Next year I think we'll be right up at the top. This senior class gave the juniors and sophomores some great things to lead by. I think next year will be the team that gets it to the next level."

rmooney@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7227 Twitter: @RMooneyTBO

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