Preseason countdown: No. 7 South Carolina

South Carolina could be closer to playing for a national championship than you might think.

Considering the long and lousy history of the program, last season’s 11-2 run was the best year ever for Gamecocks football, going 5-0 in division play.

Spurrier is taking care of home putting just enough of a fence around South Carolina – while keeping Clemson at arm’s length – to keep superior talents like defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, running back Marcus Lattimore, offensive tackle Brandon Shell, defensive tackle Kelcy Quarters and wide receiver Shaq Roland. These aren’t just nice players to build around; these are future top NFL draft picks who could’ve gone anywhere. Not that long ago, players like those would’ve been mortal locks to be off to whatever the hot SEC school was at the moment, but now South Carolina has become one of those schools.

Along with going toe-to-toe with the big boys and winning its share of recruiting battles, South Carolina has also been able to fill in the gaps with really, really fast and athletic players. Recruiting is an inexact science, so more often than not it’s harder to miss if the prospects being brought in are superior athletes, and that overall team speed is what changed around the fortunes of the program. It’s easier to be a successful Ole’ Ball Coach when everyone can fly around.

So that’s why the secondary that finished No. 2 in the nation in pass defense can lose a franchise NFL corner in Stephon Gilmore and a good cover-corner in C.C. Whitlock and probably not fall off the map. That’s why the linebacking corps can lose leading tackler Antonio Allen and No. 3 tackler Rodney Paulk and be better and more dangerous with talented options for each of the three spots.

Losing top receiver Alshon Jeffery doesn’t hurt quite as much when the returning receivers are all blazers, and potentially not having Lattimore at 100 percent as he recovers from a knee injury is cushioned by a backfield full of home-run hitters.

Spurrier has been able to put together a whopper of a defensive line and has a very young but very promising offensive front, which makes life much easier for the speed and athleticism on both sides of the ball come through. But there are problems.

But despite any and all concerns, as long as the Gamecocks play up to their talent level and as long as they can stay healthy and win the games they’re supposed to at home, they’ll be front and center in the race for the SEC East title. With that with no more than one loss on the résumé, and Spurrier will get his shot to see what he can do on the big SEC stage for the second time in three seasons with a chance to almost certainly play for the whole ball of wax.

Get used to is, SEC. South Carolina doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.

What to watch for on offense: The rising up of the receiving corps. Connor Shaw has been known so far as a running quarterback who can throw, but this offseason he has been a more consistent passer and he has been allowed to air it out a bit more. He’ll have to make everyone around him better with top target Jeffery gone to the Chicago Bears and a whole slew of concerns at receiver. Can Ace Sanders and Damiere Byrd take their phenomenal speed and become more dangerous deep threats? Can super-recruit Shaq Roland be ready right away? Will D.L. Moore be able to use his 6-foot-5, 198-pound frame to dominate smaller corners? Shaw should be better, but it would be nice if the receivers could help him out.

What to watch for on defense: The consistency of the run defense. Playing Navy, Citadel and Nebraska – three pure running teams – didn’t help the stat sheet, but Florida was able to run a bit on the Gamecocks and it had no semblance of a passing game to worry about. Auburn ripped off 246 yards in the win and Georgia was able to move the ball on the ground. The run D was hardly a problem and it only gave up 12 rushing scores, with five coming against Navy and Citadel, but for a defense with so much talent up front and so many good, smart linebackers, it was a little bit inconsistent. The run defense can’t be a little bit of anything but fantastic to have any shot of beating LSU or Arkansas.

The team will be far better if: The mistakes are kept to a bare minimum. South Carolina was in far tougher dogfight than it should’ve been against East Carolina and Vanderbilt because it gave away four fumbles against the Pirates and four picks with 10 penalties against the Commodores. The four turnovers against Auburn turned out to be a killer, while the four given away against Arkansas didn’t help the cause in a 44-28 loss. And then a funny thing happened; the turnovers stopped. Not only weren’t there any lost fumbles over the final four games of the year after the loss to the Hogs, but the ball was only put on the ground twice. There were just two picks thrown over that span and none in the final two games against Clemson and Nebraska. The defense will do its job of taking the ball away after coming up with 32 takeaways, but it would be a big help if the offense didn’t screw things up.

The schedule: The Gamecocks don’t have to play Alabama, but they get a bad break getting Arkansas and a road trip to LSU from the West. Making things worse, the date in Death Valley is sandwiched between make-or-break East games against Georgia and Florida – and the Florida trip is on the road. On the plus side, East Carolina, UAB and Wofford are relatively easy non-conference games with the road trip to Clemson at the end to close things out. Yes, facing Arkansas is nasty, but that’s at home and there’s a week off before the SEC finale. If the Gamecocks are good enough to even think about playing for the SEC title, they should be happy that Vanderbilt and Kentucky games are on the road, meaning other big conference games – like the Missouri date – are in Williams-Brice.

Best offensive player: Junior RB Lattimore. Kenny Miles looked great this offseason and appears ready to handle more work, and Brandon Wilds was a godsend over the second half of last year, but Lattimore is No. 1-overall-pick good when he’s fully healthy and everything is working right. However, the coaching staff has beaten him to a pulp getting him the ball 41 times to get by Navy and with 182 touches in just seven games before suffering a knee injury. In his 20 games of work since taking the world by storm as a true freshman he has touched the ball 460 times averaging 23 per game. It would’ve been more, but he was knocked out of the 2010 Chick-fil-A Bowl against Florida State getting blasted in the head after just one carry. The offense can survive without him – USC went 5-1 last year after he way hurt – he’s the type of player who can carry a team to a championship. Coaches are saying Lattimore will be ready to go, but realistically, the knee probably hasn’t had enough time to heal.

Best defensive player: Sophomore DE Clowney. There were unrealistic expectations placed on the nation’s No. 1 recruit in 2011 to produce right away, but he was as good as advertised making eight sacks and 36 tackles with 12 tackles for loss. More than that, he was a game-changer with huge plays in tight wins over Mississippi State and Florida along with two sacks against Nebraska. The scary part is that he, like almost all true freshmen, apparently didn’t really know what he was doing. All that was missing was a little bit of experience, and now he has that to go along with his all-world skills. Along with Devin Taylor on the other side, South Carolina has the most devastating pair of defensive ends in college football with Clowney possibly ready to go from great to truly special. If that happens and if he becomes the unstoppable pass rusher he’s expected to grow into, life will be much easier for the rest of the defense.

Key player to a successful season: Freshman PK Nick St. German and/or Senior PK Adam Yates and/or redshirt freshman PK Landon Ard. Yes, it’s a bit too easy and a little bit of a cliché, but the margin for error between winning an SEC title and going to the Capital One Bowl might just come down to the kicking game. The South Carolina special teams have been mediocre at best over the few seasons, miserable at worst, but Jay Wooten wasn’t awful on field goals. A blocked extra point in the loss to Auburn was a problem, but none of his four missed field goals mattered. However, he nailed a 49-yarder in the three-point win over Georgia and a 48-yarder in the three-point win over Navy. At some point this season the new kicker will have to hit one clutch season-making field goal, but there’s still a big question mark about who’ll be the one doing it.

The season will be a success if: South Carolina wins the East. It’s not fair that Georgia gets a schedule break when it comes to playing teams from the West, but as long as the Gamecocks go unbeaten in division play again, including another win over Georgia, should be enough to get back to the SEC title game for the second time in three years. There might not be enough in the bag to beat LSU or Alabama in the championship, but that’s not to say a win would be out of the question. First, USC has to get there.

Key game: Oct. 6 vs. Georgia. The game at Florida could be a problem coming off the road trip to LSU, and kicking off the year at Vanderbilt might be a bit of a landmine, but it’s highly unlikely that South Carolina can win the East without beating the ‘Dawgs. Last year’s 45-42 Gamecocks win was one of the most fun games of the SEC season, and while it wasn’t enough to determine the East title, it was a big early victory. This year’s game could be more important with that game in Death Valley to follow.