The South Carolina coach rarely stops putting together the sixth-ranked Gamecocks offensive schemes, outlining how best to attack an opposing defense. It’s made the one-time Heisman Trophy winning quarterback and national championship coach among college football’s best big-game leaders.
“There’s no shortcut to greatness,” CBS Sports college football analyst Gary Danielson said. “Steve is a first-chair violinist of college football.”
Spurrier gets the chance for another virtuoso showing this week when South Carolina (5-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) faces No. 5 Georgia (5-0, 3-0) at Williams-Brice Stadium. The contest will go a long way in deciding the SEC Eastern Division.
There were plenty of analysts, Danielson included, who didn’t think Spurrier would ever win big at a school with so little history and SEC tradition. And, while it’s taken almost a decade, Spurrier’s got the Gamecocks trending up.
They reached the SEC title game in 2010 as Eastern Division champions, then won a program record 11 games last season. The Gamecocks have kept it going so far, their 5-0 start only surpassed by the 1984 South Carolina that began 9-0.
Now, South Carolina’s got the chance over the next few weeks to stamp itself as a national championship contender. After Georgia, the Gamecocks play at No. 4 LSU and No. 10 Florida.
“This is what we look forward to,” Spurrier said Tuesday.
Danielson said Spurrier seems to be at his best when it matters most. South Carolina’s seemingly overmatched offense played a near perfect game in defeating then top-ranked Alabama in 2010. The Gamecocks have beaten Georgia the past two years as Spurrier largely shelved his beloved “Fun-n-Gun” passing style from Florida to use a ground-and-pound approach to winning.
What’s surprised Danielson the most about Spurrier’s latest rise was embracing change.
“He was willing to say, ‘Football’s changed a little bit and I don’t need to prove I can throw it all over,’” Danielson said.
That’s been particularly true against Georgia in the past two meetings. Marcus Lattimore was a freshman tailback playing his first SEC game for the Gamecocks when he sliced up the Bulldogs defense for 182 yards and two touchdowns in a 17-6 victory.
Lattimore was at it again last season in Athens, rushing for 176 yards and one touchdown in South Carolina’s 45-42 win. The Gamecocks have never beaten Georgia three games in a row in a series first played in 1894.
Bulldogs coach Mark Richt was an offensive assistant at Florida State when Spurrier was lighting up scoreboards at Florida. When Richt first took over at Georgia in 2001, he discovered fast his fans were more focused on results than long, dazzling pass plays and fast-paced attacks.
“I think coach Spurrier is doing what good coaches do and that is take your personnel, find out what they do best and give you the best chance of winning regardless of what you might think is a fun and exciting thing to do,” Richt said. “Winning is more exciting than chunking the ball around the yard.”
When it’s time to chunk the ball, though, there may be no one better at finding holes in a defense than the head ball coach.
Spurrier was asked if he scripts out fiery, pregame talks for his players for big games like this. No, the coach said, he’s too busy thinking about what plays he’ll call.
“When you’re calling plays and they’re all going through your mind, that’s really what I think about, pretty much throughout the week,” Spurrier said.
Danielson thinks its Spurrier’s genius and compares the coach to a master craftsman who instinctively knows which tool to use to get the desired result.
“There’s no time back from when his hands reach for it to the piece of wood,” Danielson says. “It goes there automatically.”
The results have shown through the past few years. The Gamecocks are 12-1 against SEC East opponents since 2010. They haven’t lost to the SEC’s old-school divisional powerhouse triumvirate of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee since 2009.
“Yeah, things have changed a little bit,” Spurrier said. “Being very competitive with everybody in the conference is something that certainly we’re proud of. We’re competitive and I said we’re not the best team but we’re up there amongst the best teams right now.”
Whether they stay there is anyone’s guess with South Carolina’s difficult upcoming stretch. Danielson, who’s called SEC games on CBS the past seven years, said a championship-caliber club can do just about everything right and still wind up dropping two of three in the grueling conference.
Spurrier understands that, too. That’s why he and his players are focused squarely on the Bulldogs, knowing the attention and stakes will keep rising with every victory from here on out.
“So we’re hoping they get bigger,” Spurrier said.