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The Countdown

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

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: S. Carolina (11-2, 6-2)

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. 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.

It speaks volumes about Spurrier’s coaching job last fall that growing pains were handled on the fly. For starters, the Gamecocks were forced to deal with Stephen Garcia’s continued issues with team rules, which after yet another rule-bending episode in October led to his dismissal from the program.

This is a daunting scenario for any program to accept: South Carolina jettisoned its four-year starter for a raw and largely untested sophomore quarterback. Even if Spurrier had praised Connor Shaw throughout the offseason, the theory was that it was lip service — that Spurrier was plugging Shaw as a way to motivate Garcia.

Shaw was ready for prime time. He replaced a then-benched Garcia for South Carolina’s game against Kentucky on Oct. 8, throwing for four touchdowns in a 54-3 win. While that performance alone was enough for Shaw to retain the starting role for the rest of the season, Shaw became the lone option once Garcia left the program on Oct. 11.

Five days later, Marcus Lattimore suffered a season-ending knee injury in a 14-12 win over Mississippi State. Afterwards, Spurrier said that South Carolina’s “worst fears were realized.” But from these depths — Garcia’s departure, Lattimore’s injury — came the finest season in school history.

South Carolina weathered these storms, fighting back against adversity, and came out the other side with a program-record 11 wins. If U.S.C. had gone 9-4, for example, last fall would still have been considered a successful season. Eleven wins? Almost unfathomable.

Having been through the fire, this year’s team is poised for another breakthrough. Shaw will have a season’s worth of starting experience under his belt. When Lattimore does return to full health — and don’t expect that until the heart of SEC play — the Gamecocks will have as good a one-two rushing punch as can be found in college football. Until Lattimore does return, the Gamecocks know they can rely on Brandon Wilds to help pick up the slack.

A utterly sublime defense loses its coordinator, Ellis Johnson, as well as an all-American at end and a stopper at cornerback. There’s enough talent rising up the pipeline to stem the tide; Jadeveon Clowney, who was as good as advertised, teams with Devin Taylor to form the nation’s scariest end pairing. With this talent rising up the ranks, Spurrier was wise to maintain continuity by promoting Lorenzo Ward to coordinator from within the staff.

Are things really this rosy in Columbia? The Gamecocks do have some issues to address, after all. Offensive line play is an annual concern. Alshon Jeffery’s early departure robs U.S.C. of its lone big-play threat in the passing game. The nation’s second-best pass defense loses a starting safety and Stephon Gilmore, that shutdown cornerback.

But the Gamecocks are built to match the rising expectations. Last fall proved that the program isn’t built around one star, a quarterback or a running back, but rather around a team-wide effort. And what a team it was: wholly unlike any Spurrier had ever coached. In all likelihood, this was the finest coaching job of his career.

Season grade: A+ Such grades are reserved for the finest season in school history — see Houston, for example. 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. Have I said that already?

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 Garcia being benched in favor of Shaw, so perhaps this wasn’t such a low point.

Offensive M.V.P. Prior to being injured — and counting his partial stats against Mississippi State — Lattimore was averaging 116.9 rushing yards per game. Despite missing six games, Lattimore still finished seventh in the SEC with 818 yards on the ground; his 10 rushing scores was tied for third. Shaw stepped up in his stead, rushing for 485 yards over Carolina’s final eight games and scoring eight times, the second-highest total on the team. And Shaw did what Garcia simply could not: protect the football. The latter threw 9 interceptions in 118 attempts; Shaw threw 6 in 188 attempts. Only a sophomore — and a first-year starter — Shaw moved the ball better than Garcia ever did.

Defensive M.V.P. Melvin Ingram’s impact will be felt long after he’s gone. It’s Ingram, as a senior, who showed Clowney how to play defensive end in the SEC — that’ll be Ingram’s lasting legacy with the Gamecocks, beyond the highlight-reel jaunts against Georgia; the ridiculous pass rush against Auburn, when he made 11 tackles and 3.5 sacks; the manhandling of Clemson’s offensive front; and the game-changing domination of Nebraska’s front five in the Capital One Bowl. Well, Ingram will be remembered for one other thing: as a senior, he was named the program’s third consensus all-American in its history, joining running back George Rogers in 1980 and offensive lineman Del Wilkes in 1984.

Stock watch In order to unseat Georgia from atop the SEC East, the Gamecocks need to add a passing game to what should be one of the conference’s most punishing rushing attacks. It’s clear that Shaw adds another dimension on the ground, giving the Gamecocks a second threat to take attention off of Lattimore, once he’s healthy and back in the starting lineup. If the Gamecocks can identify a new leading receiver – it might take more than one to fill Jeffery’s shoes – the offense might be better than it was last fall. There are no issues on the defensive side of the ball, even if Gilmore leaving a year ahead of schedule hurts the bottom line in the secondary. Talent-wise, the Gamecocks match up with Georgia. Unfortunately, while the Bulldogs have as easy a schedule as can be found in the SEC, the Gamecocks take on L.S.U. and Florida on the road. On the other hand, Georgia comes to Columbia.

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Comments

  1. DMK says:

    I hope South Carolina can keep this up. Were it not for UGA’s luck of the draw, the Gamecocks might be in line for their third straight SEC East title this year: USCe only loses to West teams these days (even ones they should beat, e.g., Auburn). The Gamecocks will have to beat UGA yet again, beat either LSU or Arky, and not slip up to improving Vandy and UF teams.

    Georgia again misses the SEC West powers and anything less than winning the SEC East will be a huge failure for them.

    South Carolina’s offense will be improved, even without Alshon.

    It’s scary to lose a D-Coordinator as good as Ellis Johnson. I suspect we’ll need to see Clowney have a Suh-like season for USC to go 12-1 in the regular season.

  2. Lee says:

    USCe is the best team in the EAST again. They were the best team last year. UGA is all smoke and mirrors. The product of missing the nasty boys from the west. I am not going to call ANY SEC schedule soft because that’s simply not true. However, UGA has the sweetest draw of the group.

    USCe will be better than last year. 11-1.

    UF 9-3
    UGA 10-2 or 11-1.

    The East is going to be fun this year.

  3. Dontel says:

    “Low point A 16-13 home loss to Auburn on the first day of October. But this loss led to Garcia being benched in favor of Shaw, so perhaps this wasn’t such a low point”
    You’re right Paul, this wasnt a low point. To put it accurately, it was THE turning point of the season and maybe the program altogether. Up to that point, Garcia play was subpar at best. A change had to be made or else the once promising season would have been lost. This was a total team and coaching effort to overcome adversity that would’ve crippled previous Gamecock teams (see Lou Holtz’s ’99 injury riddled team for reference). Despite the 2012 October From Hell schedule (UGA, LSU, Florida, UT), my Gamecocks will build upon the success of last season.

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