Preseason countdown: No. 9 S. Carolina
South Carolina, you did what you needed to do to get here, but do you have what it takes to stay?
After a history of mediocrity, the program finally made the big move needed in the new world of the SEC and captured the East for its first trip to the SEC title game. But for all the great things that happened last year, and for all the positives, the season also showed just how far the Gamecocks have to go to be truly special.
South Carolina won nine games and won the SEC East, and there's no making any excuses about how it happened. Yes, Georgia was lousy. Yes, beating Florida last year wasn't exactly like beating Florida, even in Gainesville. Yes, Tennessee wasn't up to Tennessee snuff and Clemson was suffering through a down season. But who cares? The Gamecocks beat Alabama, the win in Gainesville with everything on the line really was great and there's no shame in losing two games to the eventual national champion. However, after giving Auburn fits the first time around in late September, the ugliness of the 56-17 thumping in the SEC Championship Game put a sour spin on an otherwise great year. The loss to Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl became an extra twist of the knife, keeping South Carolina from just its second 10-win season … ever.
But 2010 can't be seen as the culmination of years of building things up under Steve Spurrier; it has to be seen as a jumping off point.
The nine-win campaign was just the third season in over 100 years with more than eight wins, and now getting nine or more victories a year has to be the norm. But can Spurrier keep moving the program forward, and can he prove he can get the Gamecocks over yet another hump?
There's no questioning Spurrier's Hall of Fame credentials, and he's done a marvelous job since taking over the program, but his teams have a strange habit of not coming through on a consistent basis in crunch time.
The Florida win for the East title was special, but in Spurrier's six years in Columbia, the school is 1-4 in bowl games with the lone win coming in 2006 over Houston in a 44-36 shootout. South Carolina is 11-16 under Spurrier's watch from Nov. 1 through the end of the last six seasons, and that doesn't count end of October losses to Tennessee in 2006 and 2007 along with a Halloween loss to the Vols in 2009.
As legendary as Spurrier was in Florida, his one national title came because the Gators were given a gift of a rematch against a Florida State team that won the first time around, and Ohio State's Joe Germaine engineered an epic drive to beat Arizona State in the 1997 Rose Bowl. With the talent the Ole' Ball Coach amassed in Gainesville, the Gators should've won at least two more national championships, especially in 2001. Now, with Scout.com's 10th-ranked recruiting class of 2011, after being in the top 15 in 2007 and 2009, the shelves are stocked in Columbia with more than enough talent to do more than just be happy with a simple East title. Now, Spurrier has to prove he can do something more with all the great players he's brought in.
The offense should be unstoppable. The line has the potential to be the best in the Spurrier era — although that's not saying much — and QB Stephen Garcia, RB Marcus Lattimore and WR Alshon Jeffery form the best skill position trio in America. Jeffery isn't the only top target, Lattimore isn't the only good back and Garcia isn't the only quarterback option with great depth all across the board.
The defensive front could be the best in the SEC and should spend days camping out in opposing backfields. If the linebackers can stay healthy, the run defense should finish in the Top 10 nationally, while the secondary is loaded with playmakers and NFL prospects.
It's OK, South Carolina fans, to finally start thinking your program belongs. 2010 wasn't a fluke, and while it might have been a down year for the East, and while the end of the year might not have been so great, the team finally showed it can and should be a regular player for the SEC Championship Game.
Now it's time to expect more.
This is new territory for a program that hasn't known much success, but if Spurrier can start to win more of the big spotlight games, and if his team has the fire and the hunger it had last year, winning the East won't be enough. This is a legitimate national title contender, and it's time to start ramping up the expectations.
What to watch for on offense: Alshon Jeffery and Marcus Lattimore to be even better. When Lattimore was last seen in live action, he was being helped off the field following a huge, scary hit against Florida State. He's come back roaring, and instead of resting on his first year résumé, he's taken on an even bigger role as a team leader, mainly by his hard-working example. He's done everything the coaching staff has asked of him and far more, and the same goes for Jeffery, who has top five-overall draft pick talent and upside. The fat payday is coming, but Jeffery's hardly taking it easy and isn't acting like he's too cool to still be in school. For a team and a program that's had million-dollar talents and not enough work ethic at times, the two superstars doing so much should go a long way.
What to watch for on defense: The unstoppable pass rush. South Carolina led the SEC and was seventh in the nation in sacks and 18th in the nation in tackles for loss. Devin Taylor cranked out 7.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss, while Melvin Ingram came up with nine sacks and 11 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Throw in the four sacks and 10 tackles for loss from tackle Travian Robertson, and the production coming from the linebackers, and as is, the Gamecocks should spend their Saturdays sitting on the quarterback's head. And then comes the upgrade. Even if No. 1 overall recruit Jadeveon Clowney isn't a polished all-around talent right out of the box, he should be a devastating pass rushing specialist when he gets his chances.
The team will be far better if: The pass defense isn't awful. With the superior pass rush, the talented secondary should have all the help it needs. But the pieces were in place last year, too, and South Carolina allowed 23 touchdown passes and came up with just 10 picks. Of those 10 interceptions, two came against Furman, two came against Troy and there were only three picks in SEC play while allowing 17 touchdown passes. The overall stats should be better with Navy, Vanderbilt and Citadel all likely to struggle to hit the 100-yard mark through the air, but East Carolina's Dominique Davis, Georgia's Aaron Murray, Arkansas' Tyler Wilson and Tennessee's Tyler Bray must be held in check.
The schedule: It's a season of runs, with five home games in the first six, three home games to close and one brutal midseason stretch that'll define the season. The defending SEC East champions can't use the schedule as an excuse for not repeating. While starting out the SEC slate at Georgia is hardly going to be easy, the rest of the conference slate isn't all that bad if the team is as good as expected. The Gamecocks miss Alabama and LSU from the West and they get Auburn at home, but they have to go on the road for three straight games starting with Mississippi State and going to Tennessee and Arkansas after an off week. If South Carolina can survive that, and if it's still in contention for the East title, it'll all come down to the home game against Florida. The SEC schedule is done with the Gators game, getting a breather against The Citadel before the rivalry date against Clemson.
Best offensive player: Sophomore RB Lattimore, but … junior WR Jeffery is the most talented player and top NFL prospect. Lattimore is the glue and the catalyst with his hard-running style and workhorse ability. Cam Newton was obviously the SEC's MVP, but Lattimore might have been second best with 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns highlighted by his special 212-yard, 40-carry day to beat Florida. If you want to argue that Jeffery is the team's best offensive player, you'd probably be right. He's a matchup nightmare with size, speed and the drive to be the best receiver in the country, and he showed last year he could be ultra-consistent with eight 100-yard games to go along with a 97-yard day against Furman and a 99-yard outing vs. Arkansas.
Best defensive player: Junior CB Stephon Gilmore. There are at least three players on the line who could emerge as the team's biggest star, and the linebackers are going to be major factors, but Gilmore should be the star of the show once again after leading the team with 79 tackles with three interceptions and three sacks. He's big, fast, physical and destined to make a whole bunch of money at the next level. The secondary and the pass defense might have problems, but Gilmore, if he can be more consistent in pass coverage, should make up for a lot of the issues.
Key player to a successful season: Senior QB Garcia. After yet another issue and another suspension, Garcia's career is being defined as much for his off-the-field problems as it is for his on-the-field successes. South Carolina has the potential to win the SEC championship, and while Garcia doesn't have to carry the team, he has to be good enough on a regular basis to keep Connor Shaw on the bench. There were times when Garcia was nearly flawless, like the 17 of 20 day in the win over Alabama, and there were times when he made too many mistakes. He threw 14 interceptions on the year and had five multi-pick games. The two against Furman were no big whoop, but South Carolina was 0-4 in the other four games against Kentucky, Arkansas, Auburn in the SEC title game, and Florida State. The team's fifth loss of the season, the first matchup against Auburn, came partly because Garcia had problems holding on to the ball. With the one loss coming against the Tigers, South Carolina was 8-1 when Garcia few fewer than two interceptions.
The season will be a success if: South Carolina wins the SEC title. Considering the team is better than it was last season, anything less than another East championship will be a mega-disappointment. But it's time to shoot for more, and while the Gamecocks probably won't be better than Alabama or LSU, and Arkansas could be just as strong, there's too much talent and too many good stars not to believe the SEC championship is possible.
Key game: Sept. 10 at Georgia. The Nov. 12 game against Florida will probably end up deciding the East title, and the road trip to Tennessee will be important, but if the Gamecocks want to win the SEC title, they have to show right away it really and truly is the beast of the East by beating Georgia on the road in the SEC opener. The 17-6 win last season seemed to be a confidence boost, and another victory would do wonders this year, too.