College football is getting younger. The last two Heisman Trophy winners were redshirt freshmen. At LSU, a true freshman running back is one of the most talked-about players in the country.
Even successful coaches are getting younger. For those around my age, Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury seems like a bro we may have played beer pong alongside a few short years ago.
But tonight in Columbia, South Carolina, the face of college football is that of a man who has pretty much seen it all. Almost a half-century after he won the Heisman, Gamecocks Head Ball Coach Steve Spurrier remains at the forefront of college football.
In 2014, the Silver Anniversary season of his being a college head coach, Steve Spurrier might show the game’s youngsters a thing or two.
There’s no questioning Spurrier’s status as one of college football’s patriarchs. He’s remained solidly in the spotlight through this offseason–or “talking season,” as it were. And, as Kent Babb of the Washington Post describes, Spurrier is champion of Talking Season.
His sometimes subtle, other times readily apparent zingers directed at fellow SEC statesman Nick Saban gave us blogging types something to write in the long summer months. But perhaps more importantly, it tipped the HBC’s hand for the 2014 season.
Steve Spurrier is a trash talker. There’s no doubt about that, and it’s certainly not a new trait. However, historically, Spurrier ups the ante on his smack when his team is especially good. His tell-sign this summer suggests he was dealt pocket aces.
Remarkably, it’s been 18 years since Spurrier won his first and only national championship. Behind Heisman winner Danny Wuerffel–Florida’s first Heisman recipient since Spurrier–the Gators went 12-1 and avenged their sole defeat in the Sugar Bowl.
The 1996 campaign was the culmination of Wuerffel’s illustrious career, his fourth season as starting quarterback putting up historic numbers in Spurrier’s offense.
Spurrier’s Florida teams typically boasted outstanding defenses. The 1996 team allowed just 17 points per game, despite playing a tempo that was, at the time, heightened well above the norm. But make no mistake: at Florida, Spurrier was known for offense.
At the time, the “Fun ‘n’ Gun” for which Steve Spurrier was renowned was as innovative a system as existed in college football.
Almost two decades later, the youngsters and assorted other newcomers on the college football landscape are now credited as the offensive geniuses. Among them is Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, whose team South Carolina hosts tonight.
Sumlin is 50, around the same age as Spurrier when he led the Gators to the national championship. His wide-open, spread attack helped Case Keenum put up record-breaking numbers at Houston and fostered the Heisman-winning run of Johnny Manziel.
Sumlin’s branch of the coaching tree now includes the budding and aforementioned Kingsbury. Kingsbury runs his own variation on the potent, spread offense at Texas Tech.
These disciples spreading the Gospel of Mumme and Leach are at the forefront of a revolution in college football in much the same way Spurrier was two decades ago. Meanwhile, Steve Spurrier is now seen as something of a throwback.
South Carolina’s strength is its defense. That’s been the case for as long as Spurrier has been there, and 2014 should be no different.
The Gamecocks don’t have a superstar like Jadeveon Clowney or D.J. Swearinger and Melvin Ingram before him. Defensive back Brison Williams was the only South Carolina selected to the preseason All-SEC team–and he was tabbed Third Team, at that.
However, with Lorenzo Ward coordinating the defense, a new star is sure to emerge. Ward is arguably one of college football’s most underrated assistant coaches and will soon be calling the shots as the man in charge at a program somewhere soon–perhaps South Carolina after Spurrier retires.
Offensively, the Gamecocks are built on a power-run game–a departure from the Gators team Spurrier led.
Spearheading it this season is Mike Davis, a veteran and preseason Heisman candidate much in the same vein as Wuerffel for Florida 18 years ago.
There were questions as to whether Davis would be available tonight. He was nursing a rib injury throughout the week, but Spurrier said via Mike Herndon of AL.com that the running back is “ready to go” against the Aggies.
But Davis isn’t the most intriguing player on the South Carolina offense tonight. That would be quarterback Dylan Thompson.
While other coaches around the nation have taken up the mantle of Quarterback Guru that Steve Spurrier once carried, the Ol’ Ball Coach has proven to still have an ace up his sleeve in that regard.
Connor Shaw (who has frankly outplayed Sumlin’s former pupil Manziel in Cleveland Browns preseason games, but that’s beside the point) left South Carolina as arguably the greatest quarterback in program history.
That’s a lofty benchmark to set for a successor, but Dylan Thompson has already proven capable of following Shaw’s lead.
Thompson is no unproven commodity. Relieving an injured Shaw in 2012, he threw 10 touchdown passes to just two interceptions and racked up more than 1,000 yards. Thompson is beginning his fourth season as a Gamecock, and his many years of experience make him a possible breakout star this season.
He’ll have plenty of opportunities to settle in tonight, facing a Texas A&M defense that ranked No. 97 against the pass a season ago.
That wry smirk Spurrier has worn all offseason tells me he’s working with a winning hand, and this may be the year he goes all-in with the Gamecocks.