During the South Carolina football team's last scrimmage of the preseason, quarterback Blake Mitchell threw three consecutive passes to the same cornerback. Later, walk-on Aubrey McKay intercepted backup quarterback Antonio Heffner's option pitch and ran it back 75 yards for a touchdown.

Afterward, Gamecocks Coach Steve Spurrier shook his head and told reporters, "Run the ball, play defense and the kicking game, that may be what we can do best. I'm smart enough not to try and throw if we can't. If we can't throw, we'll run up the middle and punt."

Spurrier will begin to find out what his new team can and can't do in Thursday night's opener against Central Florida at Williams-Brice Stadium. The Gamecocks, who won 16 games over the last three seasons under former coach Lou Holtz, have a new starting quarterback, fullback and tailback. They're being picked to finish near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference's East Division, along with longtime mediocre programs Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

The Gamecocks might be used to finishing in the middle of the pack or worse -- they have finished higher than third in the SEC East only once in their 13 seasons in the league -- but their new coach isn't used to mediocrity, at least not in college football. In 12 seasons as coach at Florida, Spurrier guided his alma mater to the 1996 national championship, at least a share of seven SEC titles and nine top-10 finishes in the final rankings.

"I think our fans are expecting some good things in the future," Spurrier said. "I don't know if they expect a turnaround right away. I do think we have a team that's got a chance to do some good things this year. Now, whether or not we achieve that, we've got to wait and see."

Spurrier, who is back in college football after two unsuccessful seasons as coach of the Washington Redskins and another season out of the sport altogether, seems a little apprehensive about the Gamecocks making their debut on national television, even if the opener is against the Golden Knights, who have a 15-game losing streak, the longest in Division I-A.

"We're trying to make it a positive," Spurrier said. "We're trying to tell them . . . it's a big game for us. This is not just another game. This is a big game because we're in the national spotlight. We appreciate this opportunity, and let's take advantage of it. Let's try to show some high school kids out there what Carolina football is all about."

The rest of the SEC, and college football for that matter, is eager to see what Spurrier can do at South Carolina, which has won one conference championship and three bowl games in 111 years of playing football. Even under Holtz, who won the 1988 national championship at Notre Dame, the Gamecocks had only modest success. In Holtz's six seasons, South Carolina was 19-29 in SEC games and won more than six games in a season just twice.

Spurrier's first South Carolina team could be even worse. Leading rusher Demetris Summers and Moe Thompson, the team's best defensive lineman, were kicked off the team during the spring. Backup tailback Cory Boyd was suspended last month for the season, so the team's top three runners are freshmen. Three starters -- fullback Daccus Turman, defensive end Charles Silas and guard Freddy Saint-Preux -- are suspended for tonight's game for their roles in a brawl against Clemson during last season's finale.

To "the national media guys, we're a 4-7 team, supposedly," Spurrier said. "We don't need to be sitting here bragging about anything on our team right now. We've got to go play and try to earn our way."

Spurrier's presence at South Carolina has been invaluable to the school so far. How else to explain ESPN's decision to televise the Gamecocks' opener against Central Florida, which finished 0-11 under Coach George O'Leary last season? South Carolina sold a record 62,618 season tickets, and financial contributions to the athletic department are at an all-time high.

From Baton Rouge, La., to Athens, Ga., SEC football fans have greeted Spurrier's return with equal parts trepidation and excitement. The Gamecocks' road games at Georgia, Auburn, Tennessee and Arkansas are sold out. Fans have been waiting three years for another chance to beat Spurrier, who earned the monikers "Coach Superior" and the "Evil Genius" during his tenure at Florida.

"When he got it rolling at Florida and thought he had a team that could win a championship, he'd tell you that," said New Mexico Coach Hal Mumme, who coached Kentucky against Spurrier's Florida teams. "Some coaches might have poor-mouthed, but Steve gave you an honest, straightforward answer. Some people might have perceived that as arrogance or confidence, but I think Steve was just being truthful."

Spurrier ribbed Georgia and Tennessee more than most opponents, once referring to former Georgia coach Ray Goff as "Coach Goof" and saying you couldn't spell Citrus Bowl without "UT," because the Volunteers routinely had to settle for the second-tier postseason game after finishing behind the Gators in the SEC East standings.

So will this be the Year of Retribution for many teams in the SEC?

"Oh, I suppose there's a list somewhere," said Gerry DiNardo, whose Vanderbilt and LSU teams were 1-7 against Spurrier. "I never took exception to anything he did. Some people felt he ran up the score and did things like that, but I never felt that way. I didn't have a grudge against him."

Spurrier sure seemed to hold grudges when he was coaching at Florida, particularly savoring victories over Goff and former Kentucky coach Bill Curry. Spurrier was the quarterbacks coach at Georgia Tech in 1979 when Curry was hired to replace Pepper Rodgers. Curry didn't keep Spurrier on staff so he left for Duke. The coaches' paths crossed again during the 1990s, and Spurrier's Gators beat the Wildcats seven consecutive times when Curry was coach, including 73-7 in 1994 and 65-0 in 1996.

"He threw a touchdown pass on the last play of a game against me down at the Swamp," said Mumme, whose Kentucky teams gave up 51 points or more in three of four games against Florida from 1997 to 2000. "I didn't hold any grudge. It's all for fun. That's kind of how Steve approached it. It was my job to stop Steve Spurrier. It wasn't Steve's job to stop Steve Spurrier."

Goff, whose Georgia teams were 0-6 against Spurrier, became so incensed at his rival's jokes that he once said he'd "like to have 30 minutes in a dark alley" with him. Georgia and Florida annually play their game in Jacksonville, but when the stadium there was being renovated in 1994 and 1995, the teams played on their campuses. During the bus ride to the 1995 game, a Florida assistant told Spurrier that no opponent had ever scored 50 points against Georgia in Sanford Stadium. So Spurrier had quarterback Eric Kresser throw into the end zone for an eight-yard touchdown to Travis McGriff with 1 minute 10 seconds left, giving the Gators a 52-17 victory.

"Steve beat me as bad as he beat anybody," Goff said. "If you asked me if Steve and I are great friends, I'd say that's not the case. But it was his job to score touchdowns, and he did a better job than I did. If people hold grudges against him, they're very shallow. There are too many things going on in life to hold grudges."

But Goff said Spurrier probably needed the humility he received during his back-to-back 6-10 seasons with the Redskins. A little more humility in college football probably wouldn't hurt Spurrier, either, Goff said.

"I think that would be a good thing for Steve," Goff said. "We all need humbling in our life. I think we all might think we're a little bit bigger, stronger and smarter than we are."

Steve Spurrier threw up his hands at the NFL and is coaching in college once again.