No. 10: South Carolina
By Paul Myerberg // Aug 24, 2012
Steve Spurrier put it best shortly after South Carolina’s bowl win over Nebraska: “I told the guys, ‘Next year’s team, they’ll try to win 12, because 11 already happened.’” Such are expectations: they grow when fed, like Gremlins after midnight, and are hard to contain once they reach a tipping point. For U.S.C, the tipping point was the breakthrough first predicted when Spurrier took the head job in 2005. All it took was a meeting of anticipation and achievement, which we saw last fall; while the Gamecocks had achieved many noteworthy milestones over Spurrier’s first six seasons, it’s clear that last year’s team took the next step forward. Now? These Gamecocks are no longer underdogs, and after adding the most successful season in school history to an SEC East crown in 2010, must up their game to match the ever-growing expectations.
13 (7 offense, 6 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Aug. 30
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 22
- Sept. 29
- Oct. 6
- Oct. 13
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 24
Last year’s prediction
This team stands above the rest of the SEC East thanks to what we find on the field, not what’s missing at Florida and Georgia: U.S.C. has an identity on offense, athleticism to burn on defense and the sort of confidence that stems solely from last season’s success. When taking that into account, the Gamecocks are locked, loaded and ready to roll in 2011. Can South Carolina win the SEC? It’ll come down to a December affair with Alabama, L.S.U. or Arkansas, but here’s guessing the Gamecocks are already at least 9-3 at that point, if not a win better. That’s the word of the day: better. As good as last year’s team was, this version is better.
In a nutshell Such years don’t come around too often — this is South Carolina, after all, and not Alabama. The Gamecocks won 11 games for the first time in school history. Beat Florida for the second consecutive season. Took Clemson behind the woodshed. Snapped a three-game bowl losing streak. Finished third nationally in total defense, second against the run. Again, set a new school record for wins in a single season. And did all the above despite dismissing a four-year starting quarterback for a violation of team rules and losing a Heisman-worthy running back to a knee injury over the span of one miserable week in October. From such depths came the finest season in school history.
High point From Nov. 12 to Dec. 2, the Gamecocks beat Florida, Clemson and Nebraska. That’s hard to top. If I had to guess, the only more satisfying stretch in program history came during the magical 1984 season, when U.S.C. topped Notre Dame, East Carolina, N.C. State and Florida State over a four-week span.
Low point A 16-13 home loss to Auburn on the first day of October. But this loss led to a much-warranted change at quarterback, so perhaps this wasn’t such a low point. Could this have been the high point?
Tidbit For the second straight season – and for those familiar with the program’s past, it remains almost hard to believe – South Carolina swept games against Tennessee, Florida and Georgia. Thanks to this recent run, the Gamecocks are now 10-11 under Spurrier against the three most historically relevant programs in the East. It was a different story from 1992-2003, however: U.S.C. went a combined 5-34 against the Volunteers, Gators and Bulldogs over this 12-year span, with four of those victories coming against Georgia – Spurrier’s old team, Florida, went 13-0 against the Gamecocks.
Tidbit (four straight edition) U.S.C. capped last season with a four-game winning streak: Florida, The Citadel, Clemson and Nebraska. This was only the second time in school history that U.S.C. ended a season with four wins, joining the 1958 team, which tied a bow on a 7-3 season with wins over Furman, Virginia, N.C. State and Wake Forest.
Former players in the N.F.L.
32 DE John Abraham (Atlanta), S Antonio Allen (New York Jets), WR Jason Barnes (San Diego), LB Jasper Brinkley (Minnesota), CB Sheldon Brown (Cleveland), OG Terrence Campbell (New York Jets), TE Jared Cook (Tennessee), S Emanuel Cook (Baltimore), CB Chris Culliver (San Francisco), FB Patrick DiMarco (Kansas City), OT Hutch Eckerson (New Orleans), DE Clifton Geathers (Dallas), CB Stephon Gilmore (Buffalo), WR Tori Gurley (Green Bay), DE Melvin Ingram (San Diego), C Lemuel Jeanpierre (Seattle), WR Alshon Jeffery (Chicago), CB Johnathan Joseph (Houston), P Spencer Lanning (Cleveland), S Marty Markett (Atlanta), DE Cliff Matthews (Atlanta), OT Jamon Meredith (Tampa Bay), CB Captain Munnerlyn (Carolina), DE Eric Norwood (Carolina), WR Sidney Rice (Seattle), DT Travian Robertson (Atlanta), CB Dunta Robinson (Atlanta), TE Weslye Saunders (Pittsburgh), S Darian Stewart (St. Louis), K Ryan Succop (Kansas City), OG Rokevious Watkins (St. Louis), OG Travelle Wharton (Cincinnati).
Arbitrary top five list
Teams that will address running back in draft, 2013
Steve Spurrier (Florida ‘67), 55-35 with the Gamecocks since taking over in 2005. He has a career record of 197-75-2, making him one of four active F.B.S. coaches to have a career mark 100 games over .500. Though some may have been expecting more out of Spurrier’s start, his 29 wins from 2007-10 broke the program’s previous high for victories over a four-year span, exceeding the 28 wins posted by the 1987-90 Gamecocks. Then came last fall, when the Gamecocks kicked the door in – though U.S.C. was unable to win a second straight East division championship, which should give this year’s team plenty of motivation heading into next Thursday’s opener. Despite the Gamecocks’ historic success, Spurrier’s legend was made down in Gainesville, where he concluded his 12-year career at his alma mater with a 122-27-1 record – a winning percentage of 81.7 percent, third-best in SEC history – and one national title, in 1996. His list of accomplishments with the Gators are too lengthy to mention, but here are the greatest hits: 12 consecutive nine-win seasons (only coach in SEC history to do so), 12 straight top-15 finishes, four straight SEC championships (joining only Bear Bryant) and 10 January bowl appearances. Spurrier reached 100 victories quicker than any coach in major college history, doing so in the eighth game of his 10th season. In addition to his time at Florida, Spurrier also spent three years (1987-89) as the coach at Duke, going 20-13-1, and spent two unremarkable years (12-20 mark from 2002-3) in the N.F.L. with the Washington Redskins. The trip to the professional ranks was a mistake; college is where Spurrier belongs. Any list of the top 10 coaches in college football history should have his name on it.
Players to watch
South Carolina isn’t going to mess around: Spurrier knows that his team needs Marcus Lattimore (818 yards, 10 touchdowns) to compete for an SEC championship, but he’s not foolish enough to throw the junior into the mix early, before Lattimore’s back at full strength, and risk the chance at another lower-body injury – not that another ailment could be any worse than the knee injury Lattimore suffered against Mississippi State last October, but any setback could cost Lattimore the entirety of this coming season. What is U.S.C. with the Heisman contender in the backfield? At its most basic, U.S.C. isn’t so much different on offense as it is simply better in every possible area; Lattimore takes a meat-and-potatoes offense and turns it into filet mignon, as all great players do.
We’re still awaiting a verdict: When will Spurrier and the Gamecocks take off Lattimore’s new training wheels? You’ve seen the Heisman contender work his way back into the mix over the last week or two of fall camp, but he’s yet to take a hit; that’s going to change early against Vanderbilt, and all of Columbia – and Gamecocks worldwide – will hold their breath on his first carry. For now, it’s safe to say that Lattimore will slowly work his way back into game form over the first three weeks of the year, and should be at or close to his prior self by the heart of SEC play in mid-October.
Don’t look for some sort of massive bounce-back – because the injury was pretty severe. Still, Lattimore at 75 percent is better than 75 percent of college running backs at 100 percent, if that makes sense. He’ll need some time to recover. When at 100 percent, however, it’s obvious that Lattimore is one of the top three or four backs in the country, not to mention one of the top three or four skill players in South Carolina’s history. He’s special, in a put-this-offense-on-my-back sort of way, and it’s his ability to control an entire offense that differentiates Lattimore from most of his peers. There’s nice depth behind the junior, thanks to senior Kenny Miles (204 yards) and sophomore Brandon Wilds (486 yards), though U.S.C. won’t have redshirt freshman Shon Carson, who injured his wrist earlier this week and is out indefinitely. The Gamecocks will also dress true freshman Mike Davis against Vanderbilt, perhaps as a way to ensure a four-deep stable of backs.
Junior Connor Shaw (1,448 yards, 14 touchdowns; 525 rushing yards, 8 touchdowns) is back for another go at quarterback, this time for an entire season – Shaw started nine games last fall, going 8-1, after the program finally cut ties with oft-suspended senior Stephen Garcia. Shaw wasn’t superb, in the traditional sense: he wasn’t outstanding as a passer, wasn’t a highlight-reel star, was more about substance than style. But that’s what I love about Shaw, that he’s rock-solid, not merely a flashy quarterback, and he’s a wonderful fit, personality-wise, for the sort of system Spurrier has embraced over the last two seasons. With last year’s experience under his belt, Shaw should give U.S.C. its most consistent quarterback play of the entire Spurrier era.
Five things to love about Shaw: he’ll hurt you with his legs; along with Lattimore, he gives U.S.C. one of the nation’s best zone-read pairings; he’s accurate in the short game; he displays nice touch in the red zone; and he plays slow, meaning that Shaw doesn’t get caught up in the moment, which often leads to turnovers in bunches from a first-year starter. He’s a great fit for this program, this offense and this system. Don’t look for some major leap – I don’t think that Shaw is going to complete 70.0 percent of his attempts, or throw for 2,750 yards – but expect continued steadiness in the passing game and as a runner. Shaw’s just a nice quarterback for South Carolina.
The first question up front revolves around the team’s depth – more specifically, whether U.S.C. has enough proven depth to survive an injury or two with the starting five. A second question asks whether junior Ronald Patrick, who can flex between all three interior spots, can be the answer the Gamecocks need at right guard. Finally, a third question might question whether sophomore Mike Matulis, a four-game starter last fall, has enough size to survive at right tackle. These are questions that U.S.C. must answer before October – and the pressure is on Matulis and Patrick to deliver on the strong side.
The Gamecocks can take great comfort in the situation from center to left tackle, however. Senior T.J. Johnson, a third-team all-SEC pick last fall, enters his fourth season in the starting lineup; barring injury, he’ll depart as the program’s all-time leader in career starts. He’s joined at left guard by sophomore A.J. Cann, a 13-game starter last fall. Barring injury – and cross your fingers – both Johnson and Cann will earn all-SEC honors. And how about left tackle? I’ll just say this: If I could buy stock in any player on this offense – because Lattimore’s stock is too pricey – I’d go all-in with redshirt freshman Brandon Shell, who has every member of this staff raving about his potential on the blind side. If Shell steps right in and excels, U.S.C. should amend the issues in pass protection that plagued the offense over the second half of last season.
How many false starts can one end create? How about two, when one is senior Devin Taylor (42 tackles, 6.0 sacks) and the other is sophomore Jadeveon Clowney (36 tackles, 8.0 for loss)? This is where the fun starts: U.S.C. is just solid in several areas – and better than solid, much better than solid, at a position like running back if Lattimore is healthy – but at end, with this duo, there are few teams that will strike greater fear into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks. It’s a pick-your-poison situation, and I’ll give you the bad news first: for your team, it’s a lose-lose situation. So what’s the good news? You can scheme away from a player like Clowney. More bad news: Clowney has the speed and ferocity to track down any ball-carrier, whether he’s five yards or a sideline away.
You feel for Taylor, who has been great for U.S.C. over the last two years but will, once again, be overshadowed by his teammate on the opposite side. But as good a player as Taylor is – and he could be an all-American, like Melvin Ingram – the story is all about Clowney. What can’t he do? I get the feeling that the sophomore could play cornerback, should the need arise; U.S.C. has already said that he could play a little middle linebacker, a statement that made Nick Saban smile, albeit with a pang of jealousy. There aren’t many better line pairings in college football. Junior Chaz Sutton will be the top reserve.
Inside, the Gamecocks return sophomore Kelcy Quarles (28 tackles), who moved into the starting lineup midway through his rookie year, and will promote former JUCO transfer Byron Jerideau into Travian Robertson’s former starting role. You won’t hear much from this pair in 2012, due to the ends, but Quarles had some moments as a first-year starter – he also had some sour moments, but he has a bright future in the middle of this defensive line. The Gamecocks would love to get more bodies in the interior rotation, so redshirt freshmen Gerald Dixon and Phillip Dukes, along with sophomore J.T. Surratt, must be ready come Vanderbilt.
Don’t be surprised if U.S.C. looks to get senior linebackers Shaq Wilson (52 tackles) and Reginald Bowens (44 tackles) onto the field at the same time, which would push Wilson over to the weak side while Bowens started in the middle. Another option would be to have Wilson and Bowens split time in the middle, with the backup still seeing extensive time, while senior Damario Jeffery starts on the weak side. A third option would see South Carolina using four linebackers at two spots: Wilson and Bowens in the middle, Jeffery and senior Quin Smith on the weak side. The one sure thing on the second level is at the spur position, where senior DeVonte Holloman (51 tackles), a converted safety, returns for his third season in the starting lineup. Holloman almost moved from strong safety to the spur heading into last season; this time, it’s permanent.
You need to keep one fact in mind when chewing over South Carolina’s secondary: this group is going to be helped out enormously by the Gamecock’s ability to get pressure in the backfield with four down linemen. That’s one reason to tone back on the concern, though to be fair, there are some personnel issues. The first is at cornerback, where a recent injury should sideline senior Akeem Auguste for at least the first two or three weeks of this coming season – Auguste aggravated the same foot injury that cost him all but the first game of last season. With Auguste out for some time, the Gamecocks will have no choice to turn the starting job over to junior Jimmy Legree, and that’s not a good thing for this defense.
In a positive vein, on the other hand, the staff is tickled over the strong play from sophomore cornerback Victor Hampton, who made a nice impact on special teams a year ago. It’s a tough situation for a youngster, but Hampton must become the Gamecocks’ stopper while Auguste – himself fairly inexperienced at cornerback – works his way back to 100 percent. Along the back end, South Carolina returns senior D.J. Swearinger (80 tackles, 3 interceptions) at free safety; the Gamecocks will promote sophomore Brison Williams, who took on a larger role over the last five or six games of last season, as Holloman’s replacement at strong safety. Williams might have started last fall had he not injured his arm in August.
So there are some personnel issues, particularly along the back seven. None are especially troubling. Nor are there are major concerns over the few moving pieces on the coaching staff: Lorenzo Ward is the full-time coordinator after taking on the role late last season, Kirk Botkin takes over with the linebackers and Grady Brown with the secondary. New blood isn’t such a bad thing, for one, and Ward, the former cornerbacks coach, is extremely familiar with South Carolina’s defensive blueprint. If the ends are as productive as they can be, this defense will be good enough to win the SEC East. If they struggle, or if the pass rush isn’t as strong as it can be, then you’d need to pay closer attention to the holes in the secondary. Either way, however, I wonder if U.S.C. has enough on defense to win the entire SEC, not just the East.
The Gamecocks will remain a weakling on special teams until they can get more on punts and kickoffs, not to mention a little more consistency on field goals. Perhaps a newcomer like sophomore Tyler Hull, a JUCO transfer, can give U.S.C. some length on punts and kickoffs – because the Gamecocks can really use the help. The return game is solid, thanks to players like Ellington, Sanders and Hampton, but the Gamecocks are still waiting for some breakout performance in a big game; and no, East Carolina doesn’t count. I’m not crazy about South Carolina’s special teams – no one is – but I do see some potential, especially if Spurrier can rectify the distance situation on kickoffs and punts.
Position battle(s) to watch
Wide receiver The receiver corps is a bit smaller than in the recent past, though senior D.L. Moore, at 6’5, gives U.S.C. a bigger target who could take advantage of mismatches in the red zone. And he’s not the only receiver with size: South Carolina also has redshirt freshmen Shamier Jeffery and K.J. Brent at receiver and sophomore Rory Anderson (8 catches for 188 yards) at tight end, so the offense could go big in certain packages – and could be successful when it does. But after three years of Alshon Jeffery and others headlining the Gamecocks’ passing game, the offense’s emphasis will move away from mere size and towards speed and agility. And no two receivers encompass those qualities more than junior Ace Sanders (29 for 383) and sophomore Bruce Ellington (17 for 211), with the former the Gamecocks’ clear leader at the position and the latter a wildly athletic underclassmen with the ability to give this team production in several different ways.
The issue at receiver isn’t necessarily over whether Sanders and Ellington can produce, or if true freshman Shaq Roland is going to make an immediate impact – because so far, all Roland has shown during drills is potential, aggressiveness and explosiveness; he’s going to play from day one. While I’ve made the case that U.S.C. will look towards speed over size, the Gamecocks still need underachieving contributors like Moore and junior DeAngelo Smith to finally give this offense some degree of consistent production. The Gamecocks can’t be too unbalanced in the passing game, whether towards the deep ball or to screens; the Gamecocks need to be able to create mismatches against smaller defensive backs and get players like Sanders, Ellington, Roland and others in space.
Game(s) to watch
Vanderbilt is going to come hard at South Carolina, to no one’s surprise, and the Gamecocks can’t afford to come out flat – seeing that every game holds distinct meaning inside of SEC play. The Gamecocks get Georgia, Tennessee and Missouri at home, which is great; unfortunately, the good news is hampered somewhat by the road date against Florida and the fact that U.S.C. pull L.S.U. and Arkansas out of the West. That’s not great news, but it’s certainly par for the course: South Carolina knows there are no easy schedules to be found in the SEC, merely some that are easier than others. The year ends as it usually does, against Clemson, with this one on the road.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell I’m still waiting for one team that can make a strong and unequivocal case for being viewed as a realistic national championship contender. Try as I might, I can’t see South Carolina getting there – the Gamecocks are many things, many great things, but they are not a team that seems built for a run at the national title. The primary rationale for such a mindset has much to do with the fact that there are holes on this two-deep; if not holes, per se, there are riddles that U.S.C. must solve before Missouri and Georgia, if not before Vanderbilt next week. For example, does U.S.C. have a clear plan in place should it suffer one or two serious injuries along the offensive line? And can this defense survive with so little proven depth along the defensive line? What about the lack of experience in the secondary – what about the issues at cornerback?
What you love about South Carolina is its ability to tackle these issues. For one, the system should be so simplistic in its overall goals – move the football on the ground, avoid turnovers – that every lineman on the second tier should be able to step into a starting role and keep this offense clicking. As noted, the issues in the secondary can be offset by a healthy pass rush; there’s every reason to think that Clowney and Taylor are going to give U.S.C. one of the best edge-rushing tandems in college football. That’s how you fix the sort of issues that could be unfixable elsewhere: with coaching, for one, but also talent, and the latter is something U.S.C. continues to add every February.
So what’s the story? I don’t think that the Gamecocks can win the national title. Nor do I think that U.S.C. is necessarily a lock to replicate last year’s 11-win total. But I look at this team and see one extremely capable of going 10-2 during the regular season, perhaps losing only to L.S.U. and one SEC East rival, and once again missing out on an SEC title game berth due to Georgia’s smooth conference schedule. Would that be treading water, to a degree? Not in the least – not even the smallest amount. Back-to-back double-digit win seasons? This is what U.S.C. was looking for when Spurrier walked through the door in 2005. This is another very good team, potentially a great team, but not one that’s going to play for the title. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Dream season Remember all those things I said? I take them back. South Carolina goes 12-0 during the regular season, nets a 13th win in the conference title game and heads into January with a shot at the national championship.
Nightmare season The year starts poorly against Vanderbilt, a loss. Another three SEC losses follow: Georgia, L.S.U. and Arkansas. Add in a season-ending loss to Clemson and you have a nightmare season.
In case you were wondering
Where do South Carolina fans congregate? I believe that the vast majority of U.S.C. fans have a membership to Gamecock Central, where you can find healthy message board chatter along with solid recruiting coverage. Another option is Gamecock Anthem, with Cocky Talk the best independent U.S.C. site. For a blog’s take, check out Garnett And Black Attack. One of last summer’s additions: The Big Spur is another option for recruiting coverage and message board action.
South Carolina’s all-name nominee LB Sharrod Golightly.
Through 115 teams 473,303.
Who is No. 9? Is this an even-numbered year? Then it’s likely that tomorrow’s program wins at least 11 games, as has been in the case in each such season since 2000.
Tags: A.J. Cann, Ace Sanders, Akeem Auguste, Brandon Shell, Brandon Wilds, Bruce Ellington, Byron Jerideau, Connor Shaw, D.J. Swearinger, Damario Jeffery, Devin Taylor, DeVonte Holloman, Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles, Lorenzo Ward, Marcus Lattimore, Rory Anderson, SEC, Shaq Roland, Shaq Wilson, South Carolina, Steve Spurrier, T.J. Johnson, Tyler Hull, Victor Hampton
Leave a Comment