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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 14: South Carolina

Let’s not allow what transpired during the SEC title game to cloud what South Carolina accomplished in 2010: yes, Auburn had its way with the Gamecocks, but this team still won nine games, a high under Steve Spurrier, and took home its first SEC hardware of any kind — ever. That’s the big story for U.S.C. in 2010, not the late losses to Arkansas, Auburn or Florida State. Regardless of what happened in those three setbacks, regardless of a second half to forget in Atlanta, the Gamecocks can hold their head high with what they’ve accomplished last fall. It’s also intriguing to consider the idea that South Carolina has turned that proverbial corner. There’s reason to believe that 2011 might be the finest season in program history: the offense remains largely intact, with stars in particular providing a superb one-two punch, while the defense returns most of its starting lineup. How will U.S.C. fare when expected to excel?

Conference
SEC, East

Location
Columbia, S.C.

Nickname
Gamecocks

Returning starters
13 (7 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 23

2010 record
(9-5, 5-3)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 23

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    E.C.U.
  • Sept. 10
    at Georgia
  • Sept. 17
    Navy
  • Sept. 24
    Vanderbilt
  • Oct. 1
    Auburn
  • Oct. 8
    Kentucky
  • Oct. 15
    at Mississippi St.
  • Oct. 29
    at Tennessee
  • Nov. 5
    at Arkansas
  • Nov. 12
    Florida
  • Nov. 19
    The Citadel
  • Nov. 26
    Clemson

Last year’s prediction

This is Spurrier’s best U.S.C. team yet. The quarterback situation seems to be resolved, with Garcia a year wiser and the coaching staff high on Shaw’s athletic ability. Lattimore could provide the burst the Gamecocks so desperately need on the ground, though the running game will go only as far as the U.S.C. offensive line can take it. There are play makers at wide receiver; all-conference talent along the defensive line; experience at linebacker; and a secondary that should again rank among the top third in the SEC. If all goes right in the six winnable games — those listed above — taking two of five in the toss-up games will yield an 8-4 finish. I think that’s in line with expectations heading into 2010. Still, don’t for a second doubt this team’s ability to break out in a big way: with one break here, another there, U.S.C. can leapfrog past Florida and Georgia to take the SEC East and play for a B.C.S. berth. Yes, that could happen — but I don’t think it will.

2010 recap

In a nutshell If you’re looking for one reason why U.S.C. was able to take the next step, take note of the beefed-up running game. How the Gamecocks fared on the ground — how they didn’t do much, actually — was a major bone of contention over the last few seasons; U.S.C. could pass, often enough, but the backfield never carried its weight. It did in 2010, thanks mostly to the nation’s top rookie back. And it’s a good thing this freshman delivered on his promise, as the defense took a slight step back. Perhaps knowing that top-flight showing were not needed every week, the defense relaxed; whatever the case, U.S.C. finished in the middle of the pack among the SEC in most defensive categories. In its defense, the group remains young: we’ll see improvement this fall. Add together a talented offense with a growing defense and you have the best team in the SEC East. So what if Carolina’s climb is coming at the same time as Florida and Georgia’s decline?

High point The crowning moment was clearly a 36-14 win in Gainesville on Nov. 13, one that ended a decades-long string of ineptitude against the Gators and clinched the SEC East division. If anything, that final score doesn’t due South Carolina’s performance justice: Florida scored on the opening kickoff and again very late in the game, touchdowns that sandwiched an altogether oppressive U.S.C. attack on both sides of the ball.

Low point There were two ugly losses, to Arkansas and Auburn — the SEC title game on the latter, not the pretty close regular season tussle. The loss that really stands out, however, is a 31-28 loss to Kentucky on Oct. 16. Why? Well, U.S.C. should be past losing to inferior teams. That the loss came one week after a program-defining win over then-No. 1 Alabama makes it all the more frustrating.

Tidbit There are two F.B.S. programs located in the city of Columbia: South Carolina and Missouri. Not the same city, obviously, but the same-named city in two separate states. I think you follow. That’s not all the two universities share. Both are in the midst of the finest periods in program history, in fact: U.S.C. hasn’t posted a losing season in seven years, tying a school record, while Missouri has posted a program-record 60 wins over the same span. Is there something in the water in Columbia — South Carolina and Missouri?

Tidbit (nice work edition) Spurrier is one of 14 active coaches in the F.B.S. to have led two different schools to multiple bowl games, having done so 11 times at Florida and five times with the Gamecocks. It’s a pretty illustrious list: Tom O’Brien (eight at Boston College and two at N.C. State), Mack Brown (six at North Carolina and 12 at Texas), Tommy Tuberville (two at Mississippi and eight at Auburn), Ron Zook (three at Florida and two at Illinois), June Jones (six at Hawaii and two at S.M.U.), George O’Leary (five at Georgia Tech and four at U.C.F.), Frank Solich (five at Nebraska and three at Ohio), Dennis Erickson (six at Miami and three at Oregon State), Rick Neuheisel (four at Colorado and four at Washington), Nick Saban (wait a minute), Les Miles (three at Oklahoma State and six at L.S.U.), Houston Nutt (seven at Arkansas and two at Mississippi) and Howard Schnellenberger (two at Miami and two at Louisville). More on Saban: he’s the only coach to earn multiple bowl bids at three schools, doing so three times at Michigan State, five times at L.S.U. and four times at Alabama.

Former players in the N.F.L.

28 DE John Abraham (Atlanta), CB Fred Bennett (Cincinnati), LB Jasper Brinkley (Minnesota), OG Garrett Chisolm (New York Jets), CB Chris Culliver (San Francisco), FB Patrick DiMarco (San Diego), OT Hutch Eckerson (San Diego), DE Clifton Geathers (Dallas), CB Andre’ Goodman (Denver), WR Tori Gurley (Green Bay), OG Lemuel Jeanpierre (Seattle), OT Jarriel King (New York Giants), P Spencer Lanning (Chicago), DE Cliff Matthews (Atlanta), OT Jamon Meredith (New York Giants), CB Captain Munnerlyn (Carolina), DE Eric Norwood (Carolina), WR Sidney Rice (Seattle), CB Dunta Robinson (Atlanta), TE Weslye Saunders (Pittsburgh), DT Shaun Smith (Tennessee), S Darian Stewart (St. Louis), K Ryan Succop (Kansas City), OG Travelle Wharton (Carolina).

Arbitrary top five list

2010′s freshmen running backs by impact
1. Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina.
2. Ronnie Hillman, San Diego State.
3. Michael Dyer, Auburn.
4. James White, Wisconsin.
5. Orleans Darkwa, Tulane.

Coaching

Steve Spurrier (Florida ‘67), 44-33 with the Gamecocks since taking over in 2005. He has a career record of 186-73-2, making him one of five 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 over the past four seasons breaks the program’s previous high for victories over a four-year span, exceeding the 28 wins posted by the 1987-90 Gamecocks. Spurrier was named the 2005 SEC coach of the year after leading South Carolina to a 7-5 mark and led the Gamecocks to their first SEC hardware of any kind last fall. But, as all college football fans know, Spurrier’s legend was made down in Gainesville, where he concluded his 12-year career at his alma mater of Florida with a 122-27-1 record (an .817 winning percentage, third best in SEC history), including the 1996 national title. 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. as the coach of the 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

No freshman in the country made a bigger impact in 2010 than U.S.C. running back Marcus Lattimore, who was one of those rare first-year offensive skill players who doesn’t just match his lofty expectations but exceeds them. Finding a consistent running game has been a prime issue for Spurrier and the Gamecocks — make that had been an issue, as it was perfectly evident by the end of the season opener that Lattimore was the missing piece of South Carolina’s offensive puzzle. He scored twice against Southern Mississippi on the first Thursday of the season; added another pair of scores and 182 yards rushing in a gritty win over Georgia; had one the most impressive 93-yard performances you’ll ever see in the win over Alabama; and added 184 yards against Tennessee and another 212 in the Swamp.

The missing piece. More than anything, what Lattimore brought to the table defined this offense, which was once purely finesse, now tough and physical. What can he do for an encore in 2011? Staying healthy should be a goal, as Lattimore missed all of one game, Vanderbilt, and most of another, the bowl loss to Florida State. In terms of production, there’s no reason to think the sophomore can’t build on his 2010 numbers — 1,197 yards rushing and 17 scores — in making a dash for the Heisman. Is he a realistic contender? Absolutely. Come on: Lattimore is the engine behind the offense of a B.C.S. bowl hopeful. That’s as close to the definition of a Heisman contender as you can get.

And as we marvel at Lattimore’s stunning debut, we again shrug at the thought of Stephen Garcia serving as Carolina’s starting quarterback. Well, we shrug at his continued inability to serve as a team leader, as most multiple-year starting quarterback do with ease: for the umpteenth time in as many years, Garcia spent the spring on the outside of the program looking in after committing another violation of team rules. That’s not what you expect of a senior off the field; par for the course at this point, but most thought such days were behind Garcia. On the field, you expect Garcia to continue developing into a top-flight SEC quarterback — especially now that he has sophomore Connor Shaw nipping at his heels.

I said Lattimore runs this offense, but take note of the following: 9 of Garcia’s 14 interceptions last fall came in losses, which does illustrate how important it is that U.S.C. puts forth a balanced, error-free attack. As a whole, despite his continued penchant for turnovers, Garcia did turn a corner as a quarterback in 2010. Again, I think Shaw’s a very viable candidate to take over should the senior stumble, which should be enough of an impetus for Garcia to toe the line on and off the field. Shaw’s already proven himself capable of running the offense — in a small sample size, to be fair — so look for him to land significant snaps even with Garcia the entrenched starter.

I hesitate to call them a three-headed monster, seeing that U.S.C. can never be sure what it’ll get under center. The Gamecocks have at least a two-headed monster, however, with junior wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (88 receptions for 1,517 yards and 9 scores) joining Lattimore as the air portion of Carolina’s attack. To boil down just how good Jeffery is, consider this: opposing defensive backs know he’s going to get the ball on every key play yet still can’t stop his N.F.L.-ready combination of size, speed, ball skills, agility and leaping ability. Jeffery’s not the best receiver in the country; he’s just the second-best, and only a hair behind Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon. There’s tons of size along the receiver corps, with 6’4 senior Jason Barnes and 6’4 junior D.L. Moore (17 catches for 164 yards) joining Jeffery in the starting lineup. Sophomore Ace Sanders is the little guy, but he’s already a proven SEC receiver after making 26 catches as a rookie.

Hey, look at that — U.S.C. returns the same offensive line coach for the second straight year. That’s unheard of in Columbia, where Spurrier has dealt with a revolving door of coaches over the last few years. Perhaps bringing back Shawn Elliott for another season will lead to greater consistency from this offensive line, which adopted a tough mentality in the running game last fall but again struggled in pass protection. Three starters must be replaced, but years of solid recruiting have left the Gamecocks in fine position to supplant those lost contributors. The strength of the line should be at tackle, with senior Kyle Nunn on the left side and converted guard Rokevious Watkins, a former JUCO transfer, on the right.

A redshirt freshman like Cody Gibson could shake some things up a bit, perhaps pushing Watkins to the blind side and Nunn to a reserve role, but I’d be surprised if the Gamecocks don’t go with experience at tackle. Junior T.J. Johnson is back at center after starting every game over the last two years. There’s experience at right guard in senior Terrence Campbell, who has started in the past, but it seems like U.S.C. will go forward with redshirt freshman A.J. Cann on the left side.

The Gamecocks will miss the leadership and production provided by end Cliff Matthews, a two-time all-SEC selection. The leadership, at least. In terms of production, it’s hard not to be excited about the thought of senior Melvin Ingram (28 tackles, 9 sacks) landing full-time starting duties. All Ingram did as the first end off the bench last fall was produce: best on the team in sacks, third in the SEC, Ingram was a major factor behind Carolina’s pass rush, which was the seventh-best in the country. Another reason to admire Ingram’s potential impact? His size doesn’t hinder his pass rush abilities, but it does allow Ingram to move inside on passing downs. If Ingram has the season most expect, the combination of he and junior Devin Taylor (46 tackles, 13 for loss, 7.5 sacks), a first-team all-conference pick, is the SEC’s best. Sophomore Chaz Sutton lies in reserve, should he stay healthy.

You may have heard of Jadeveon Clowney, the nation’s top recruit in the 2011 cycle. The nation’s top recruit regardless of position, mind you, not merely the best end. He’s supposedly pretty good. How good? We won’t know until September, but words like unstoppable have been bandied about by those who have witnessed Carolina’s early fall practices. Hard to block — no, largely impossible to block off the edge. If nothing else, even if the mental side of the game is beyond the freshman, Clowney will make an impact on third down. So, to recap: two all-conference starting ends; a talented sophomore reserve, albeit with some injury issues to address; and an unstoppable true freshman. My goodness.

One starter must be replaced, but South Carolina’s best interior lineman, senior Travian Robertson, is back in the fold. He and Ladi Ajiboye formed a nice tackle duo, when Ajiboye was eligible, which helped U.S.C. finish the year ranked 12th nationally against the run. Who replaces Ajiboye? The leading contenders are junior Aldrick Fordham and freshman Kelcy Quarles, with Fordham’s slight experience giving him a leg up on the depth chart. But neither have prototypical size, which is a concern. If U.S.C. is looking for size, it should peek a glance at former JUCO transfer Byron Jerideau and redshirt freshmen J.T. Surratt and Corey Robinson. Size: these guys have some.

The Gamecocks lost both of last season’s starting linebackers, but the defense will be fine should this year’s projected starters remain healthy. It’s important to remember that junior Shaq Wilson was slated to start in the middle for U.S.C. last fall; that turned out not to be the case, as Wilson suffered a severe hamstring injury in August and never fully recovered, playing in only one game. Now back to 100 percent capacity, Wilson hopes to recapture the form that made him South Carolina’s leading tackler in 2009. It should be senior Rodney Paulk on the weak side, should he shake off his own injury woes. After earning national accolades as a true freshman, Paulk has spent the last few years in and out of the lineup. If he’s unable to stay on the field, U.S.C. could turn to juniors Quin Smith and Damario Jeffery, with Smith already showing flashes of talent after making the move to linebacker during the spring.

Position battle(s) to watch

Secondary The Gamecocks moved senior Akeem Auguste (58 tackles, 1 sack) to cornerback, which takes care of one problem — replacing Chris Culliver — but leaves a hole at safety. But you can’t quibble with the move, which leaves U.S.C. with three experienced cornerbacks: Auguste, junior Stephon Gilmore and senior C.C. Whitlock. Gilmore’s the leader, not to mention a member of the top tier of defensive backs in the country. Gilmore led the Gamecocks with 79 tackles last fall, adding three sacks and three interceptions. If he makes a similar leap between 2010-11 as he made between his freshman and sophomore seasons Gilmore is an easy all-American candidate. At worst, Whitlock is the first cornerback off the bench; at best, his 10 games of starting experience help him move ahead of Auguste and into the starting lineup, which might then allow U.S.C. to move Auguste back to safety. Additional depth comes from a quartet of redshirt freshmen, at least two of whom will see substantial time. So what happens at safety? Junior D.J. Swearinger (66 tackles) is locked in at strong safety after logging major minutes as a part-time starter, part-time reserve last fall. Sophomore Jimmy Legree’s strong spring moved him to the top of the list at free safety, but he’s not that far ahead of freshmen Sheldon Royster and Brison Williams; the latter got a boost from being on campus for spring drills. The situation at free safety underlines the depth situation at large: there’s talent, but it’s not of the proven variety. You’d think that DeVonte Holloman (69 tackles, 2 interceptions) would hold the edge at the spur position, a hybrid safety-linebacker, thanks to his starting strong safety duties last fall. That’s not entirely the case: Holloman is going to be a major figure in the secondary, but he’ll have to outplay incumbent starter Antonio Allen (70 tackles, 10.5 for loss, 2.5 sacks) to earn the starting nod. If nothing else, there’s terrific depth at the position.

Game(s) to watch

I think the Sept. 10 game at Georgia decides the SEC East. The Gamecocks have played Georgia tight since Spurrier’s arrival, going 2-4 overall but staying well within striking distance in each of those four losses. The Gators come to Columbia this fall, as do Auburn and Clemson. Perhaps the two best teams U.S.C. will play all year, Mississippi State and Arkansas, come in a three-week span, both on the road.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Let’s wrap up the SEC East with South Carolina, the clear favorite in the lesser of this power conference’s two divisions. Yes, it’s not a stretch to say that part of the reason behind South Carolina’s recent climb to the top of the East has been the decline in play seen in Gainesville and Athens, but that’s rather dismissive of all that Spurrier and the Gamecocks have achieved over the last few seasons. Isn’t it? 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. Don’t underestimate the latter. After years of bursting out of the gate but stumbling over the second half, U.S.C. took an enormous step forward by closing out last year’s regular season with three straight wins, including road wins at U.F. and Clemson. When taking that into account, the Gamecocks are locked, loaded and ready to roll in 2011. Right in their corner is a program-defining back like Lattimore; though only a freshman, he gave last year’s team its physical attitude. Garcia might be a question mark off the field, but there’s reason to believe his final season in Columbia will be his best — and it doesn’t hurt to have an all-American talent like Jeffery at receiver. The issues defensively lie right up the middle: at tackle and linebacker. Settle those and the sky is the limit. 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.

Dream season The motor gets going at Georgia and revs into high gear over a tough three-game road trip more than month later. The Gamecocks are 12-0 heading into the SEC title game.

Nightmare season To say that things don’t go according to plan might be an understatement: 7-5, 4-4 in conference play.

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. A late addition: The Big Spur is another option for recruiting coverage and message board action.

Word Count

Through 107 teams 336,656.

Up Next

Who is No. 13? The head coach at tomorrow’s university is a protege of a former F.B.S. coach whose last name is shared by more than 2.5 million people in the United States alone.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. bfahey says:

    Wisconsin….I think

  2. roo says:

    i’m guessing it’s arkansas and john l. smith. on the other hand i can think of more than two and a half people named smith, so who knows where this could be headed.

  3. roo says:

    speaking of arkansas, i think petrino should be in your second tidbit

  4. Dan says:

    Schnellenberger has also gone to 2 bowls with Florida Atlantic.

  5. Patrick says:

    2.5 million? Help us out here Paul.

  6. David says:

    I’m guessing Arkansas, since Petrino was an OC under John L. Smith at Utah State. I assume the clue meant a last name shared by more than 2.5 million. If only 2.5 people have to share the last name, it could be pretty much anyone.

  7. havik says:

    wow, how can BYU be ranked higher than this? cant wait for that write up.

  8. Dontel says:

    Kudos for your preview on the Gamecocks. Barring injury, I honestly believe this team has a legitimate shot at winning the SEC title. Our only concern right now is depth at the free safety position and finding a consistent replacement for Spencer Lanning at punter. The deepest position on the team is at wide receiver. We have a good combination of size (Jeffrey, Moore, and Barnes are 6’4″) and speed (Sanders, Byrd, and Ellington). Its going to be a fun year in Columbia, South Carolina. Another site Gamecocks fan congregate is The Big Spur (http://southcarolina.247sports.com/) An excellent site with in depth team news and tidbits.

  9. BobJ says:

    According to Census Bureau data, Smith is the right name for the clue. As for which college it might point to, I’m clueless.

  10. BBC says:

    The best Gamecock site by far is TheBigSpur.com

  11. DMK says:

    I believe we’ve officially crossed the line separating contenders form pretenders.

    On second thought, I’d put money on one out of Texas, Georgia and Florida finishing top 15. And you never know who Auburn will buy before the transfer deadline …

  12. MstateDawg says:

    Does Brigham Young University own and operate PreSnapRead.com? I can’t think of another explanation.

  13. Tom Holmoe says:

    As part of our (BYU’s) ESPN agreement, all bloggers are required to hype are first season as an independent.

    Seriously though, I am a big BYU fan but I thought the highest anyone could have them in any sort of pre-season poll/countdown was 15.

    I think they will be better than most (coaches and AP pollsters) have them currently but I was surprised that Paul hasn’t put them on his list yet. Should be interesting to see what he has to say.

    I will say this though, they (BYU) have the potential to be pretty good this year.

  14. Ezra says:

    for impact, you gotta rank SMU’s Zach Line higher than any single back at Wisonsin. Without Line, SMU would have missed bowling, and generally floundered with Padron’s sophomore slump.

    With him? C-USA division champs, and a second consecutive bowl; really, the final nail in the coffin of the death penalty.

  15. M Meyer says:

    I’m glad that Ron Zook has a place on such an illustrious list. I hope he coaches at Illinois forever! This is also a good point to bring up with my Illini fan coworkers.

  16. Patrick says:

    As a Utah fan, I know full well that the lone wolf in the preseason prediction wilderness can be dangerously dead-balls-on (see Phil Steele, 2008). If BYU really is that team, as Paul obviously believes, it’s going to have to get through its first four games at no worse than 3-1. And BYU is traditionally a slow starter under Bronco.

  17. Tom Holmoe says:

    Patrick, good point. I think Bronco’s mentality has changed slightly as an independent. When they were in the Mountain West, the goals were to win the conference championship and be undefeated at home. His teams did start slow and learned some valuable lessons.

    Now, as an independent, they know they have to go undefeated and there is even more onus to get out of the gate quickly. I think the Texas game will be tough and the Utah game always is a battle. UCF is tough but at home, we should be favored and I see us beating Ole Miss.

  18. [...] read from pre snap about our Gamecocks Pre-Snap Read: A College Football Blog What you think about you do … what you do, you become. Reply With [...]

  19. Flounder says:

    Don’t forget http://www.leftoverhotdog.com for your garnet tinted opinions on the USC Gamecocks.

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