cocknfire asked me this question the other night on Team Speed Kills Now. My answer? Yes and no. Since such answers are necessarily vague, a little elaboration is in order.
At this point, I think South Carolina is in position to consistently have winning records, hold the third spot in the East on lock down, and occasionally have great records and compete for the SEC Title and for big-time bowl bids. Those are legitimate goals for this team. It's not where we've been historically, mind you. Historically, this program has been happy to have a winning record, has been happy to get any bowl bid, and has been happy to finish ahead of Kentucky and Vandy in the East. Now, though, after a decade of being coached by Hall-of-Fame material in Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier and consistently finishing in the Top 25 in recruiting rankings, there's reason to believe that this program can finish higher than fourth and can achieve more in the postseason than Carquest Bowl victories. The fact that the coaches predicted that we will finish third in the SEC East in their preseason rankings shows that the perception is that this program is close to surpassing Tennessee in the East and that it's ready to be within striking distance of Florida and Georgia.
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However, I think South Carolina still has a lot of work to do before we can reasonably believe that we're going to compete for the SEC every year. In fact, I would say that only four teams are really in position to say they can do that: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, LSU. Auburn used to be in this group, but Alabama appears to be displacing them for the time being. Tennessee was also part of this group at one time but now appears to be in a transitional phase. We've never won the East and have only finished second once, in Spurrier's first year. We also finished third a couple of times early in Lou Holtz's tenure. Before we begin thinking about competing with the big boys every year, we have to prove that we're capable of putting it all together a few times. That's when we'll start to get real respect from the media and, more importantly, the national blue-chip recruits that are currently choosing higher profile programs over us.
Does that mean we can't have a big year, though? No! Any team in the SEC with the exceptions of Vandy, Kentucky, and Mississippi State is capable of winning the SEC, and even Mississippi State has played in one SEC Title Game. Hell, it wouldn't surprise me too much to see Kentucky make a run at it one year; don't forget that they were briefly ranked in the Top 10 in 2007. All it takes is a confluence of forces in one season, such as a favorable schedule and a talented, senior-laden team. It's not going to happen for us this year. Even if we're much better than advertised, a likely unbeatable Florida team stands in our way late in the season. However, in 2010 we'll have a very experienced, talented team, and the Gators will finally be Tebow-less. If the ball rolls our way a few times, it could happen then. This year, though, I think our goals should be getting to eight regular-season wins and making it to the Peach Bowl or better. That will set up reasonable expectations for a very successful 2010.
So, can South Carolina be a winner in the SEC? Yes, but, for the time being, within certain limits.