COLUMBIA, S.C. – Steve Spurrier's done with talking season. He's ready to see No. 9 South Carolina live up to the high expectations its dealt with since finishing a third-straight 11-win season a year ago.
"I think it's nice to be picked a little bit," Spurrier said Sunday about the Gamecocks, selected as preseason favorites this summer to win the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division.
"People think we've got a chance to be pretty good, maybe that tells your players, 'Hey, we got a chance to be pretty good,'" Spurrier said.
The Gamecocks open things Thursday night against No. 21 Texas A&M, the eighth time in Spurrier's 10 years at South Carolina he's gotten an early start to the regular season. The Gamecocks are undefeated under Spurrier on Thursday night, including conference victories over Mississippi State in 2006 and Vanderbilt in 2012.
Both South Carolina and Texas A&M will have stars to replace, including some of the brightest in the game the past few seasons. The Gamecocks lost defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the former SEC defensive player of the year taken No. 1 overall last May by the Houston Texans. South Carolina also starts without the winningest quarterback in history in Connor Shaw and perhaps the most dependable receiver of Spurrier's era in Bruce Ellington.
The Aggies begin year three in the SEC without Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, one of three Texas A&M players (receiver Mike Evans and offensive lineman Jake Matthews are the others) gone to the pros.
While some think the absences leave plenty of questions for the two top-25 teams, Spurrier believes it gives the returnees on both sides motivation to do well.
"Our guys are anxious to show the country we can play ball and we have a lot of good players," he said.
The biggest Gamecock questions will come on defense, where Clowney and starters Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton from a year ago are vying for NFL spots. Defensive tackle J.T. Surratt is the lone hold over and will be joined by sophomores Gerald Dixon and Darius English at the ends, and Dixon's brother Gerald Dixon Jr. — their father Gerald Dixon Sr. played at South Carolina in 1990-91 — at the other tackle spot.
The line's goal is chasing down Texas A&M sophomore quarterback Kenny Hill, picked to succeed the dynamic, unpredictable Manziel.
South Carolina's new quarterback is longtime backup Dylan Thompson, who has had his moments — both positive and negative — under center the previous three seasons.
Thompson said he wasn't frustrated at sitting behind Shaw and waited his turn. "When you come here, they don't guarantee you playing time, unless you're Clowney, I guess," he said.
Thompson worked to develop better rapport with receivers, running backs and an offensive line considered one of the SEC's very best.
While Thompson is more the drop back-style passer Spurrier groomed during his "Fun-n'-Gun" days coaching Florida, don't expect the coach to go away from the running success the Gamecocks have relied on to go 33-6 the past three years.
Mike Davis ran for 1,183 yards — the fourth highest total in South Carolina history — last year and Spurrier plans to keep him grinding forward this fall. Davis has missed several practices with rib problems, but was back at work late last week.
"Hopefully, Mike will be full speed, 100 percent by Thursday. We think he will be," Spurrier said.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin says Spurrier is a master at sticking with a system and melding his quarterback's skills with that style. "They're going to be good at what they do, and that's never going to change," he said.
Sumlin and fans will get a good look at Spurrier even before entering Williams-Brice Stadium with the school putting up an 85-foot tall banner of the ball coach as part of $200,000 in outside beautifications.
Spurrier said the banner was athletic director Ray Tanner's idea, not his. "Hopefully, we can keep winning here at Williams-Brice," Spurrier said.
"I don't want people coming by there throwing eggs at it."