HOOVER, Ala. -- South Carolina's Steve Spurrier returned to the SEC rather quietly the past two seasons, largely avoiding the barbs and inflammatory comments that made him one of college football's most colorful coaches during a dozen years at Florida.
But as Spurrier prepares to begin his third season with the Gamecocks, he seems much more confident and, yes, even cocky.
"We've raised our goals this year," Spurrier said Wednesday, speaking at SEC media days here. "We're going to try to win the conference. We feel like we've really increased our talent level at South Carolina. We've added a lot of players that we think are at a pretty close level with Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. Obviously, you need to be at their level to win the conference. We feel like our talent level is good enough now that we should say, 'Hey, let's go try to win our conference championship.'"
Spurrier must like his team's talent because history suggests the Gamecocks face an uphill battle in winning the SEC. The Gamecocks have never finished better than 5-3 in SEC play and have lost nearly two-thirds of their conference games since joining the league before the 1992 season. In fact, South Carolina has only one conference title in more than 100 years of football -- the 1969 ACC title.
Spurrier is more than aware of South Carolina's mediocre past.
"We won our fourth bowl game in school history this year, by the way," Spurrier said. "The history there is not all that super-duper. ... What we need to do is understand that the object of a football season is to try to win your conference championship. I really believe that."
Spurrier said his team wasn't talented enough to compete for SEC titles the past two seasons, when he won 15 games to match Joe Morrison for the most successful coaching start in school history. Last season, the Gamecocks nearly upset Auburn, lost to eventual national champion Florida when the Gators blocked a potential game-winning field goal and lost games to both Tennessee and Arkansas by seven points or fewer. South Carolina beat Houston 44-38 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl to finish 8-5.
"As a coach, I think you have to realistically set your goals," Spurrier said. "I think you have to look at your team, your talent level, give them something you can achieve. We tried to do that the first two years and have a go at it. We didn't achieve all our goals, but we hit quite a few here and there. Now that we believe our talent level is pretty close to those top-tier teams, we need to raise our goals. We need to believe that we're just as good as those other guys."
The Gamecocks expect to return six starters on offense, including senior quarterback Blake Mitchell and running backs Cory Boyd and Mike Davis, who combined to run for 1,297 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. Mitchell threw for 1,789 yards and 10 touchdowns in nine games last season, and was named MVP of the Liberty Bowl with 323 passing yards and four touchdowns.
"Blake is a fifth-year starting quarterback," Spurrier said. "He has started two years off and on. Hopefully, his experience and his mental toughness is much, much better. I think he's ready to have a big year. I probably bragged on him a little too much prior to last year. But looking back, realistically, our offensive line was not good at all the first couple of games. Blake's the kind of quarterback where we need a running game and pass protection."
Replacing star receiver Sidney Rice, who caught 142 passes for 2,233 yards and 23 touchdowns the last two seasons, is one of the team's biggest concerns. But Spurrier likes junior Kenny McKinley's potential and incoming freshmen Chris Culliver, Jason Barnes and Dion Lecorn were among the most highly recruited wideouts in the country.
"Sidney was a very good player for us," Spurrier said. "His leaving may have helped us sign five outstanding potential receivers. Hopefully, a couple of those guys or three or whatever will really be ready to play this year."
Spurrier is most excited about his team's defense. The Gamecocks should return 10 starters from 2006, when they finished ninth in the SEC and 63rd nationally in total defense. Senior linebacker Jasper Brinkley is one of the country's most underrated players, and several incoming players should help what was the league's most undersized defensive line last season.
"We're going to be a bigger defense," Boyd said. "People aren't used to seeing that from South Carolina."
And people aren't used to hearing about such high expectations at South Carolina, or at least realistic goals.
"Coach Spurrier, he's a legendary coach," Brinkley said. "He knows what he's talking about."
Spurrier goes after Clemson
A reporter asked Spurrier about Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson. Only Spurrier could turn his answer into a criticism of rival Clemson.
"Yeah, again, I don't like to talk much about other teams' players," Spurrier said. "He's obviously a good player. I really admire what Kentucky did last year, go 8-5 and win the bowl game. We thought we did something big beating Clemson, then Kentucky beat them also. Anyway, Clemson was a pretty good team. They were a good team. At one point the year they were a dang good team. I don't know exactly what happened to them, but they didn't finish very well."
Auburn quarterback healthy
Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said senior quarterback Brandon Cox is as healthy as he's been during the last two seasons. Cox was bothered by ankle and knee injuries last season, curtailing what the Tigers were able to do on offense. In 2007 Auburn ranked 10th in the SEC and 88th nationally in pass offense with only 172.7 yards per game; Cox was sacked more than 30 times.
"I think he's going to be a good player for us," Tuberville said. "He needs to play healthy. He's gotten stronger. He's a little quicker.
"He couldn't have gotten any slower."
Tuberville said linebacker Tray Blackmon reminds him of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who Tuberville coached at Miami. But Blackmon was suspended twice for a total of six games last season, and he didn't play in the 17-14 win over Nebraska in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. Tuberville also suspended Blackmon from participating in spring practice. Blackmon enrolled in classes at Auburn in May and attended summer school. Tuberville hasn't decided whether Blackmon will return to the team this fall. "He's done well," Tuberville said. "I have not decided and won't decide until after I watch him. It's really not going to have anything to do with ability. We're going to win games whether he plays or not. I'd love to have him there."
• Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said there's one reason he's back as the Wildcats' coach for a fifth season: quarterback Andre Woodson. Brooks went 9-25 in his first three seasons at Kentucky, before last season's surprising 8-5 finish. "He made the greatest improvement I've ever seen a player make from one year to the next," Brooks said. "And thank God he did, because I'm back because he did."
• Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, whose brother, Danny, resigned as the team's running backs coach last week for health reasons, said his brother is doing well. Danny Nutt, 46, had brain surgery in 1998 for bleeding in his brain stem. The condition continues to persist, but Nutt said his brother's latest MRI was clear. "He's done very well," Nutt said. "It was a very good report. There's no fresh bleeding there. We knew this day was coming, but, boy, you didn't expect it to be this quick."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.