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Season of expectations begins with opener against UNC

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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) -

Gamecocks fans are not used to expectations when it comes to their football team. These past few years have been different, to say the least.

Now there are lofty expectations.

So what do fans expect this year? Everything.

Beat Georgia? Check. Beat Florida? Check. Beat Tennessee? Check. Beat Clemson? Check. SEC East champions? Check. SEC champions? Check.  

But now there's a greater expectation than ever before. It is perhaps the greatest expectation. Since we know plenty of you are superstitious when it comes to your team, we won't mention that expectation. 

However, when it comes to a team with a ceiling this high, it's hard to not to talk about those who say South Carolina is a contender for…well…winning a very beautiful crystal trophy at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. 

The journey to potential postseason glory begins tonight with No. 6 South Carolina's college football lid-lifter against the North Carolina Tar Heels. 

North Carolina enters the game unranked, but the Tar Heels finished last season with an 8-4 record and are looking for momentum after they were unable to play in a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions.

Coach Steve Spurrier, the former Duke head coach who played plenty of heated rivalry games against UNC back in the 1980's, has praised the Tar Heels during practices this week.

"North Carolina is a good team," said Spurrier. "They could have easily won 10 games last year. We've got to be ready to play our best if we're going to beat North Carolina."

So is his team ready to play?

"We've practiced decently the last couple of days, but anything can happen. Hopefully we just take care of the ball and play smart. That's the only thing coaches worry about: playing the way we're capable and taking care of the ball," said Spurrier. 

Oh, okay.

Well, Spurrier will be relying on senior quarterback Connor Shaw to help in ball security department.

Shaw is already expecting a challenge from the Tar Heels' defense.

"They're athletic on defense," said Shaw. "Of course, we feel like we can hurt them on some things. We've got to come in prepared and execute and do what we know how to do best. Our scout team is giving us some good looks so we'll see what happens on Thursday."

Unfortunately, Shaw will be without at least one of his receivers. Tight end Rory Anderson was ruled out of the game due to injury just a few days ago, and Bruce Ellington remains questionable due to a nagging hamstring injury.

As for the run game, the Gamecocks will finally begin a full season without Marcus Lattimore. But three capable, yet mostly unproven backs could fill the void left by Lattimore when he declared for the NFL Draft.

Sophomore Mike Davis was given the starting nod earlier in the week after he spent the majority of offseason practices as the primary running back. However, Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson are also available to play.

But what about the defensive side of the ball?

Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward says his squad is ready to go.

"I think we've had pretty good practices this week," said Ward. "Assignment-wise, especially with the starting group, we've been on point."

However, Ward will be down one linebacker in Thursday night's opener with Cedrick Cooper out with an elbow issue.

Wait, something's not right here. We have gone just over 500 words without mentioning junior defensive end and future NFL object-of-affection Jadeveon Clowney. 

It's difficult to not mention the Rock Hill native and All-American after an offseason where he received endless amounts of coverage from ESPN for "The Hit" and a feature story from the New York Times.

That massive spotlight aside, Clowney's coaches say they've been impressed with how he's handled the national hype.

"I think he's ready to play," said defensive line coach Deke Adams. "All the attention he's getting, he's shying away from it. He's ready to play a game. They're all ready to play. They've been banging on each other for almost 20-something practices now. They're ready to play against someone else."

Defensive end Kelcy Quarles echoed Adams' thoughts.

"I'm ready to hit somebody else," Quarles said. "I'm tired of hitting the same people. I'm ready for this game, been waiting on it all year, and we're ready to show what we can do."

Ready seems to be the go-to word for this team.

We'll find out if they really are ready in just a few short hours. The Gamecocks kick off the 2013 college football season on ESPN at 6 p.m.

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