The only two SEC programs to finish in the top 10 of both the AP and USA Today coaches' polls in each of the last two seasons are Alabama and...
Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
The South Carolina Gamecocks.
Head coach Steve Spurrier has led the once-downtrodden program to its most prosperous time in its history, posting three straight 11-win seasons—its only 11-win seasons since the program was established in 1892.
Now, it's time to take the next step.
South Carolina returns four starters on the offensive line, a Heisman Trophy candidate in running back Mike Davis, a solid receiving crops led by Shaq Roland and a defense that, while working through some personnel holes, still has plenty of talent for coordinator Lorenzo Ward to work with.
Anything less than an SEC East title should be viewed as a disappointment to South Carolina this season, which is a compliment to the work Spurrier has done since taking over the program in 2005.
It's no secret that Spurrier wants another SEC title before he retires. He told Tony Barnhart of CBS Sports that this team has the tools to do it.
“We think we can do it (win an SEC championship) but we know it won’t be easy,” Spurrier told Barnhart. “But we have a chance. When you compete that is what you want—a chance.”
The door is wide open.
Florida is down after sputtering to a 4-8 season last year, Tennessee has missed out on three straight postseasons and defending division champion Missouri lost its three best receivers, a 1,000-yard rusher in Henry Josey, quarterback James Franklin, cornerback E.J. Gaines, and defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy.
South Carolina's primary competition should be Georgia, and the Gamecocks get the Bulldogs inside the friendly confines of Williams-Brice Stadium after a tune-up against East Carolina in what will be the defining early game of the SEC East season on Sept. 13. The winner will have the inside track to Atlanta in early December, and the loser will be fighting an uphill battle.
"Whoever wins that gets the inside track," said Todd Fuhrman, market analyst for Fox Sports 1 and DonBest.com. "I know a lot of people expect Florida to bounce back, but I'm still skeptical there. I just don't think the offensive talent is there."
It took a while—more than a century, in fact—for South Carolina to get to this point. But now it's time to take the next step. Spurrier is under contract through 2018 according to ESPN.com, and this is the best chance the 69-year-old has had at South Carolina to win the conference.
Championship or bust. That should be the case at South Carolina this year.
The Gamecocks have already proven that they can be consistent at an elite level, and now it's time to bust through to the next level and take a trophy home from the Georgia Dome in early December.
* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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