COLUMBIA, S.C. — A mere four years ago, most Gamecocks fans would have jumped for joy at the thought of an 11-2 season, something the school had never seen in its first 116 years of playing college football.
Those fans familiar with the program's checkered history would have embraced it and likely accepted it as a one-time marvel, a signature event to be celebrated for probably the next 20 years or so until the next miracle season unfolded.
Now, after three consecutive 11-2 seasons, including three consecutive bowl victories, the miraculous has become routine.
Expectations are growing ever stronger that coach Steve Spurrier can actually take the Gamecocks to the next level—an SEC championship and a berth in next year's first ever four-team NCAA championship playoff.
Not only can it happen, but they may very well be favored to make it happen.
Although the Gamecocks will likely lose four draft-eligible juniors to the NFL, they only have five seniors, the fewest among FBS teams in 2013.
South Carolina returns eight of 11 starters on offense from the team that just polished off Wisconsin, 34-24, in the Capital One Bowl.
Granted, the loss of quarterback Connor Shaw looms potentially enormous. However, the Gamecocks won't be starting from scratch.
Fifth-year senior Dylan Thompson, a battle-tested and proven winner at quarterback, will step in for Shaw. Surrounded by a veteran offensive line and established talent at running back and wide receiver, Thompson will be set up to succeed.
Defensively, the Gamecocks must replace both starting cornerbacks and three defensive linemen, including All-American defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles and end Jadeveon Clowney.
Those losses may not be as bad as they seem. On the line, the Dixon brothers, Gerald and Gerald Jr., have extensive playing time, as does Phillip Dukes. J.T. Surratt is a returning starter at tackle.
The cornerback losses are more glaring, although that's a position that's one of the easier ones for young players to adapt to.
Between backups and the Gamecocks' recruiting class, immediate help should be coming at both defensive line and cornerback.
A look around at the competition in the SEC East doesn't exactly inspire fear.
Georgia has to replace record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray, and it will likely still be a work in progress when the Gamecocks play them in the third game of the 2014 season.
It's hard to say what's going to transpire at Florida, a team that remains in turmoil after finishing 4-8.
Even though Tennessee beat the Gamecocks this season, the Vols probably remain a year or two away from contender status.
Defending champion Missouri returns a solid base of talent and looms as the team to beat in the East.
In any case, the schedule sets up favorably. South Carolina gets both Georgia and Missouri at home, as well as Tennessee.
From the SEC West, South Carolina draws a Texas A&M team minus quarterback Johnny Manziel and any semblance of a defense in the season opener at home, but a late season date at Auburn will be daunting.
Outside the conference, only the season-ending road game at Clemson is cause for concern.
As with any team, South Carolina has to have a bit of luck. The Gamecocks need to avoid injuries at key positions.
Above all else, they need to avoid that one meltdown loss (see Tennessee this season) that has cost them a spot in the SEC Championship Game.
The Gamecocks have beaten the eventual SEC East champion each of the last three seasons, only to stumble against a team they were favored to beat.
For a fourth consecutive season, South Carolina should be knocking on the door of reaching the SEC championship and, with a victory there, the national championship.
Never mind knocking on the door. It's time for Spurrier and the Gamecocks to kick it in.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!