BLYTHEWOOD, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina's Steve Spurrier always considered the Gamecocks were a long-term project, even if some on the outside of the program saw it was just a quick lay-over for the national championship coach.
"I didn't plan on being here two or three years and try and get one of those glamour jobs," he said Thursday. "I wanted to see if we could build this up to something special."
Spurrier's getting closer each year and he enters his 10th season — only two shy of his national championship tenure at Florida — with expectations higher than ever after a third consecutive 11-2 season.
Last week, the Gamecocks were picked to win the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division and give Spurrier a shot at the title he covets most — an SEC championship.
"We're close. We're very close," Spurrier said. "Somebody told me there's only three teams in America to finish in the top 10 the last three years and we're one of them."
The Gamecocks finished a program-best fourth in the country in last year's final AP Top 25. That has some fans dreaming of a spot in this year's new, four-team College Football Playoffs.
Not that there aren't hurdles. The Gamecocks lost NFL No. 1 draft pick Jadeveon Clowney and the quarterback Spurrier keeps calling the best in South Carolina history in Connor Shaw. Also gone from last year are defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles, the sacks leader; receiver Bruce Ellington, the team's receptions leader; and both starting cornerbacks in Jimmy Legree and Victor Hampton.
Spurrier said the players his staff's brought in behind the headliners in the past few years are good players, just without experience. That showed at SEC Media Days last week when despite being preseason divisional favorites, the Gamecocks didn't have an all-SEC first-team player.
Spurrier pointed to linebacker Skai Moore, the team's top tackler last year as a freshman.
"Maybe they haven't played enough to be all-conference, I don't know," Spurrier said. "Obviously, we think they can play very well and are ready to show it this coming year."
Spurrier surprised many in college football when he returned to the game at South Carolina in November 2004 after two poor NFL seasons at Washington.
But Spurrier, who'll turn 70 next April, said when took the job he came with the goal of setting the Gamecocks' record for coaching victories and figured he'd need about eight or nine years to reach the necessary 65 victories. The wins came slowly at first — 35 in his first five seasons — until Spurrier's program started landing players like receiver Alshon Jeffery, cornerback Stephon Gilmore, running back Marcus Lattimore and Clowney, all four who are on NFL rosters.
"We started winning around here because of the players first, not because of me," Spurrier said. "I coached my butt off the first five years around here but about seven wins was about the best we could average. But we started to get better players. Facilities got a lot better. We've got better coaches in and all together we've been able to put it together pretty well."
The Gamecocks have gone 42-11 the last four seasons, a run that included the 2010 SEC East title and a victory over then No. 1 Alabama that same year.
And they expect the success to continue.
Defensive line coach Deke Adams believes the returning players will step up and fill the voids left by Clowney, Quarles and Chaz Sutton, the Gamecocks other defensive end starter from a year ago.
"I think I've been asked that question about a million times about what are we going to do with Clowney gone," Adams said. "We're going to line up and play."
That's always been Spurrier's philosophy, hang with the guys you have and not worry about those you don't. He's confident he's got the players to take the next step forward.
"Hopefully, we've got guys who are ready to go," he said.