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1. Never mind the West Virginia Effect
South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is better at his position than any other player in college football is at theirs. That goes for Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, USC receiver Marqise Lee, Notre Dame tackle Stephon Tuitt, BYU outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy, or anybody else. A boom-or-bust player as a freshman in 2011, Clowney not only lived up to the hype of being the No. 1 recruit in the country in 2012, he did so in a way that dooms almost every future No. 1 recruit to bust status by comparison.
Clowney was not only incredible at his position in 2012, he was incredible in a human-highlight-reel kind of way. And he saved his best highlights for the end of the season, so that everybody in the college football universe would brightly remember them long into the offseason. First, he recorded 4.5 sacks versus Clemson...
...and then he erased Michigan running back Vincent Smith from existence.
Every year, we witness the West Virginia Effect, in which a team that looks amazing in its bowl game gets increasingly ridiculous hype as the long, arduous offseason plods along. You forget about the shortcomings the given team had during the regular season, and you just remember the perfect final act. It's human nature, really. You could also call it the Nebraska Effect if you so choose. Louisville seems like the most likely
victim candidate for the West Virginia Effect in 2013 (Clemson's also in the conversation), but in taking a gander at The Sporting News' preseason top 25 that was released this week, I think we can add another effect to the list: The Clowney Effect.
Issue: South Carolina returns only one of its top five running backs, and the ground game was really only above-average at best, even when Marcus Lattimore was healthy.
Response: Jadeveon Clowney.
Issue: South Carolina also returns only one of its top four receiving targets from a passing game that was explosive but not incredibly efficient.
Response: Jadeveon Clowney.
Issue: South Carolina must also replace its top five linebackers, not to mention stud safety D.J. Swearinger and stud end Devin Taylor from a defense that was perilously thin last year.
Response: Jadeveon Clowney.
Now, if any single defensive player could carry a good team to greatness, it's Clowney. But he alone is not going to mask the other issues South Carolina had last year. To live up to even Top 10 hype, much less Top 3 hype, the Gamecocks are going to need some freshmen and sophomores to rather quickly come up big, and that's always a scary proposition.
The schedule is strangely navigable, yes, and the ceiling is high; but it's difficult for me to see this team as a reliable threat to reach the BCS title game.
2. Escape from Glen Mason Territory
It really did take Steve Spurrier a little while to re-establish himself at the college level. He returned to the SEC in 2005, engineered enough of an improvement to get the Gamecocks back to a bowl game for the first time in four seasons, then basically stagnated for the next four years. Despite his reputation as one of the most innovative, interesting offensive coaches of the last 25 years, his early South Carolina teams just weren't very good on offense. (And even now, after three straight years of high-quality ball, the offense still lags behind the defense by a decent margin.) He lost either five or six games in each of his first six seasons in Columbia.
If not for his résumé, Spurrier could have been an interesting Glen Mason Territory candidate.
Beginning in 2010, however, the Gamecocks turned a corner. Improvement didn't show up in the win column until 2011, but they have ranked 14th, 20th, and 13th in the F/+ rankings over the last three years, they won the 2010 SEC East title, and they have gone 11-2 in each of the last two years. Granted, South Carolina fans probably didn't expect that it would take Spurrier six seasons to establish such a high level of play, but he has now.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 11-2 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk: 13|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|30-Aug||at Vanderbilt||17-13||W||29.1 - 16.8||W|
|8-Sep||East Carolina||48-10||W||32.8 - 26.2||W|
|15-Sep||UAB||49-6||W||38.5 - 10.2||W|
|22-Sep||Missouri||31-10||W||39.6 - 24.8||W|
|29-Sep||at Kentucky||38-17||W||30.6 - 19.4||W|
|6-Oct||Georgia||35-7||W||36.1 - 9.9||W|
|13-Oct||at LSU||21-23||L||23.2 - 28.7||L|
|20-Oct||at Florida||11-44||L||15.5 - 12.2||W|
|27-Oct||Tennessee||38-35||W||31.3 - 28.9||W|
|10-Nov||Arkansas||38-20||W||28.9 - 26.9||W|
|17-Nov||Wofford||24-7||W||20.6 - 29.5||L|
|24-Nov||at Clemson||27-17||W||27.4 - 23.0||W|
|1-Jan||vs. Michigan||33-28||W||46.0 - 18.1||W|
|Points Per Game||31.5||44||18.2||13|
|Adj. Points Per Game||30.7||48||21.1||14|
3. Wearing down
South Carolina was done no favors by the Injury Bug in 2012. Star running back Marcus Lattimore was lost for the season with a torn-up knee in the ninth game of the year, backup running back Brandon Wilds never saw the field at all, and quarterback Connor Shaw missed two games and was less than 100 percent for others. Clowney and Swearinger both missed time, and only three of the top eight defensive backs played in all 13 games. And some combination of injury and poor depth had South Carolina playing pretty average football down the stretch.
Adj. Points Per Game (first 8 games): SC 30.7, Opponent 18.5 (+12.2)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 4 games): SC 27.1, Opponent 27.1 (+0.0)
Granted, this slump didn't impact South Carolina's record -- the Gamecocks avoided upsets against Tennessee (a late UT comeback fell short), Arkansas, and Wofford (7-7 heading into Q4) and still beat Clemson on the road. And after some time to heal, the Gamecocks played quite well in the Outback Bowl versus Michigan (and they needed to -- Michigan played well, too).
Even if it was due mostly to injuries, the late-season regression is a bit of a red flag for 2013 simply because of the number of key players the defense must replace. The linebacking corps is starting from scratch, and the secondary is without its anchor, Swearinger. A similar run of injuries could be devastating this time around, though odds are perhaps in favor of South Carolina avoiding a similar run of injuries.
|Q1 Rk||72||1st Down Rk||62|
|Q2 Rk||68||2nd Down Rk||50|
|Q3 Rk||17||3rd Down Rk||10|
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Connor Shaw||6'1, 204||Sr.||*** (5.7)||154||228||1,956||67.5%||17||7||25||9.9%||7.1|
|Dylan Thompson||6'3, 212||Jr.||** (5.4)||66||127||1,027||52.0%||10||2||13||9.3%||6.6|
|Brendan Nosovitch||6'1, 223||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Connor Mitch||6'3, 210||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
4. Shaw vs. Thompson
In February at Football Study Hall, I wrote a long piece about quarterbacks and the charting data we had compiled in 2012. For me, one of the most interesting takeaways from the piece was just how different the South Carolina offense was when Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson were behind center.
Nobody threw deep more frequently in this sample than South Carolina's Connor Shaw. […] With Conner Shaw in the game, South Carolina goes either very short or very long; with Dylan Thompson, there's a lot more intermediate passing.
When healthy, Shaw is a dangerous dual-threat quarterback. Shaw is an effective runner, and South Carolina happily pecks away at you with six-yard gains, sucking you in and eventually leaving you vulnerable to big gains downfield. With Thompson in the game, however, the offense changes. Thompson is far from immobile, but he doesn't run nearly as much as Shaw (pass-attempts-to-carries ratio: Shaw 2.38, Thompson 6.67), and South Carolina takes on more of a pro-style look, with running backs doing the running and the quarterback throwing intermediate passes.
The offense is also less effective when Thompson is in, of course.
Adj. Points Per Game (with Shaw): 30.9
Adj. Points Per Game (with Thompson): 27.2
Shaw is the starter as long as he can fend off injuries, but in Thompson, South Carolina does appear to have a backup that can at least fend off major regression. And in 2014, it will be interesting to see if a couple of more highly touted youngsters can challenge Thompson for the starting role.
One note, however: Both quarterbacks take far too many sacks, especially on standard downs. Shaw was particularly good at bailing himself out on passing downs, but the Gamecocks were far below average on standard downs and fell into too many second- and third-and-longs overall.
|Brandon Wilds (2011)||RB||6'2, 218||So.||*** (5.5)||107||486||4.5||N/A||3||-4.7|
|Connor Shaw||QB||6'1, 204||Sr.||*** (5.7)||106||586||5.5||4.2||3||+8.0|
|Mike Davis||RB||5'9, 215||So.||**** (5.9)||52||275||5.3||8.5||2||+2.0|
|Dylan Thompson||QB||6'3, 212||Jr.||** (5.4)||21||130||6.2||5.2||1||+3.3|
|Bruce Ellington||WR||5'9, 197||Jr.||NR||5||28||5.6||8.5||0||-0.1|
|Shon Carson||RB||5'8, 219||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Kendric Salley||RB||5'9, 215||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|David Williams||RB||6'1, 192||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
5. Mike Davis might decide this team's fate
When healthy, Marcus Lattimore always passes the eyeball test. He just looks like a future all-pro running back. But even before injuries, Lattimore didn't post irreplaceable numbers in 2011 or 2012. He was lost for the season with an awful knee injury for two straight years, and in neither season did South Carolina's numbers suffer without him.
Even if a back is replaceable, you still need to find someone to actually replace him. Kenny Miles is also gone, and Brandon Wilds didn't exactly light the world on fire in 2011; after an interesting freshman season, Mike Davis entered spring 2013 with a chance to seize control of the starting running back job, and it appears he did just that.
Davis' upside is high. He had a nice recruiting pedigree, and he easily showed more explosiveness than any other South Carolina back last year. If the Gamecocks are able to lean on him and set up both keepers by Shaw and downfield passing to Bruce Ellington, Damiere Byrd, and company, they should put more than enough points on the board to roll through most of their 2013 schedule. The offensive line, decent to good last year, returns six players with starting experience and is big and mean in the middle. Davis should be able to take advantage of the running lanes the line generates.
Mike Davis. Curtis Wilson, USA Today.
|Bruce Ellington||WR||5'9, 197||Jr.||NR||57||40||600||70.2%||10.5||16.3%||64.9%||10.6||91.3|
|Rory Anderson||TE||6'5, 218||Jr.||*** (5.6)||28||14||271||50.0%||9.7||8.0%||53.6%||9.7||41.2|
|Damiere Byrd||WR||5'9, 168||Jr.||**** (5.8)||23||14||366||60.9%||15.9||6.6%||52.2%||15.8||55.7|
|Nick Jones||WR||5'7, 171||Jr.||*** (5.6)||20||12||197||60.0%||9.9||5.7%||50.0%||9.0||30.0|
|Shaq Roland||WR||6'1, 182||So.||**** (5.8)||18||5||80||27.8%||4.4||5.1%||55.6%||4.5||12.2|
|K.J. Brent||WR||6'4, 185||So.||*** (5.7)||3||3||28||100.0%||9.3||0.9%||33.3%||11.2||4.3|
|Jerell Adams||TE||6'6, 224||So.||**** (5.8)||5||4||90||80.0%||18.0||1.4%||60.0%||18.0||13.7|
|Shamier Jeffery||WR||6'1, 204||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Jody Fuller||WR||5'11, 211||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Kwinton Smith||WR||6'4, 206||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|T.J. Johnson||C||53 career starts; 2012 2nd All-SEC|
|A.J. Cann||LG||6'4, 310||Jr.||**** (5.8)||25 career starts|
|Ronald Patrick||RG||6'2, 315||Sr.||*** (5.5)||13 career starts|
|Brandon Shell||RT||6'6, 321||So.||**** (5.9)||10 career starts|
|Mike Matulis||LT||6'5, 264||Jr.||*** (5.7)||10 career starts|
|Corey Robinson||LT||6'8, 338||Jr.||*** (5.6)||9 career starts|
|Cody Gibson||RT||6'7, 284||Jr.||*** (5.6)||6 career starts|
|Kyle Harris||C||1 career start|
|Will Sport||RG||6'5, 289||So.||*** (5.5)|
|Cody Waldrop||C||6'2, 312||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Clayton Stadnik||C||6'3, 283||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Mason Zandi||LT||6'9, 287||RSFr.||** (5.4)|
|Brock Stadnik||LG||6'5, 291||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|D.J. Park||RG||6'4, 335||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Na'Ty Rodgers||OL||6'5, 278||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Q1 Rk||6||1st Down Rk||10|
|Q2 Rk||34||2nd Down Rk||20|
|Q3 Rk||4||3rd Down Rk||10|
6. Hmm, I wonder why opponents tended to run a lot on passing downs…
Opponents played things straight on standard downs against South Carolina, running and passing with expected frequency. But on passing downs, they ran almost five percent more frequently than the national average. It's almost as if the Gamecocks had a pass rush opponents wanted to avoid or something.
Again, most of Jadeveon Clowney's help from last year is gone. Of the eight other players who sacked the quarterback at least twice in 2012, only two return. But the Clowney Effect makes it difficult to worry about that. End Chaz Sutton, who made nearly one-third of his tackles behind the line, does return; so does active, scary tackle Kelcy Quarles. Injuries could cause a pretty stark drop-off on the line, but the starting four should be as intimidating as almost any in the country.
One other hint that depth may have been an issue in 2012: South Carolina's defense was quite a bit worse in the second and fourth quarter than in the first and third. Again, this is a red flag considering how much South Carolina must replace from last year's two-deep. The second string on the defensive line will be extremely young, as will all strings at linebacker.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jadeveon Clowney||DE||6'6, 272||Jr.||***** (6.1)||12||47.0||6.7%||23.5||13||0||2||3||1|
|Kelcy Quaries||DT||6'4, 293||Jr.||**** (5.9)||12||30.5||4.4%||8||3.5||0||0||0||0|
|Chaz Sutton||DE||6'5, 256||Jr.||**** (5.9)||13||23.0||3.3%||7||5||0||1||2||0|
|J.T. Surratt||DT||6'2, 311||Jr.||** (5.4)||10||11.5||1.6%||2.5||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Gerald Dixon, Jr.||DT||6'3, 318||So.||*** (5.5)||12||6.5||0.9%||0||0||1||1||0||0|
|Phillip Dukes||DT||6'3, 315||So.||**** (5.8)||5||3.0||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Mason Harris||DE||6'3, 215||So.||*** (5.6)||6||3.0||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Darius English||DE||6'6, 225||RSFr.||*** (5.7)||2||2.5||0.4%||0.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Gerald Dixon||DE||6'2, 275||So.||*** (5.7)||4||2.0||0.3%||1||1||0||0||0||0|
|Deon Green||DT||6'4, 283||So.||*** (5.6)|
|Kelsey Griffin||DT||6'2, 282||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jordan Diggs||SPUR||6'0, 197||RSFr.||**** (5.8)||2||4.5||0.6%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Sharrod Golightly||SPUR||5'10, 179||Jr.||*** (5.6)||8||3.0||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Kaiwan Lewis||MLB||6'0, 221||So.||*** (5.7)||11||2.5||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Cedrick Cooper||WLB||6'2, 215||So.||*** (5.6)||11||1.0||0.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Marcquis Roberts||WLB||6'1, 215||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Kelvin Rainey||WLB||6'3, 228||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|T.J. Holloman||MLB||6'2, 215||RSFr.||*** (5.6)|
|Larenz Bryant||LB||6'1, 215||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Skai Moore||LB||6'2, 210||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
8. How do you avoid regression?
South Carolina's defensive line was as aggressive as they come, but it was only good, not great, against the run. The Gamecocks did rank just 33rd in Adj. Line Yards, showing some lapses on passing downs rushing (draw plays and scrambles against an ears-pinned-back pass rush) and defending short-yardage situations at something less than an elite level. But a fantastic set of experienced linebackers cleaned up messes and allowed the line to remain aggressive.
Can a unit made up almost entirely of freshmen, redshirt freshmen, and sophomores play at the same level? Probably not. And if the linebackers are struggling at times, South Carolina could find itself falling victim to even more passing downs rushes and short passes that go for longer gains. You might be able to make South Carolina pay for its aggressiveness a bit more in 2013.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Brison Williams||SS||5'11, 205||Jr.||*** (5.7)||13||47.5||6.8%||1.5||1||2||4||1||1|
|Jimmy Legree||CB||6'0, 185||Sr.||*** (5.5)||13||39.5||5.7%||1||0||3||6||0||0|
|Victor Hampton||CB||5'10, 197||Jr.||**** (5.9)||13||31.5||4.5%||3||1||1||6||0||0|
|T.J. Gurley||FS||5'10, 183||So.||*** (5.6)||8||10.5||1.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Ahmad Christian||CB||5'10, 189||So.||*** (5.7)||12||7.5||1.1%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|Kadetrix Marcus||FS||6'1, 185||Jr.||*** (5.7)||12||4.5||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Sidney Rhodes||CB||5'10, 167||Jr.||NR||12||4.0||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Chaz Elder||FS||6'2, 194||RSFr.||**** (5.8)||0.0||0.0%|
|Rico McWilliams||CB||5'11, 178||RSFr.||*** (5.7)||0.0||0.0%|
|Kyle Fleetwood||SS||5'11, 214||RSFr.||*** (5.7)||0.0||0.0%|
|Chris Moody||SS||6'1, 210||RSFr.||*** (5.6)||0.0||0.0%|
|Ronnie Martin||CB||5'11, 173||Jr.||*** (5.7)||0.0||0.0%|
|Pharoh Cooper||CB||5'11, 190||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Tyler Hull||6'2, 212||Jr.||54||39.4||5||22||12||63.0%|
|Patrick Fish||6'0, 194||Jr.||3||35.0||0||2||1||100.0%|
|Landon Ard||5'9, 189||So.||13||62.2||3||23.1%|
|Bruce Ellington||KR||5'9, 197||Jr.||18||22.6||0|
|Damiere Byrd||KR||5'9, 168||Jr.||2||11.0||0|
|Special Teams F/+||86|
|Field Goal Pct||86|
|Kick Returns Avg||62|
|Punt Returns Avg||10|
9. Ace Sanders was terrifying
Does Ace Sanders have bones? Because it certainly seemed like he was carrying at least 170 pounds of muscle on his 175-pound frame. With the ball in his hands, Sanders was full of piss, vinegar, and a little more piss, showing an unfair combination of agility and strength that was good for South Carolina's passing game and great for South Carolina's return game and field position battles. Bruce Ellington exceeded Sanders' capabilities in the passing game at times; can he (or anybody else) approximate what Sanders brought to the table in punt returns?
Punting and place-kicking made this a pretty average special teams unit overall; special teams becomes an outright liability if Sanders' production cannot be at least somewhat replicated.
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|28-Sep||at Central Florida||54|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||20|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||16|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||+4 / +12.1|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||12 (7, 5)|
10. Wait, just two Top 20 opponents? Is that right? And no November road games?
To an extent, I think I understand what The Sporting News saw in ranking South Carolina No. 3 in the country. Connor Shaw is a strong "if healthy" quarterback (even though it doesn't seem he's actually healthy that much). The Carolina run game could be in good hands with Mike Davis. A secondary that was banged up last year now has quite a bit of experience. Jadeveon Clowney is Jadeveon Clowney. And perhaps most importantly, the schedule is strangely manageable. South Carolina will play only four teams currently projected in the Top 35, and three must visit Columbia.
If South Carolina is ever going to make a run toward the national title game, it will probably be in 2013, with a manageable schedule and Clowney still in uniform. But I just don't trust the Gamecocks enough to predict that. The early trip to Georgia will test a defense that is still breaking in new pieces, and I don't see South Carolina surviving a three-week October road trip against three competent, potentially interesting teams (Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri) without at least one upset loss. I certainly see the Gamecocks winning double-digit games for the third straight year -- and for a school that had done so only once before 2011, that is a feat that shouldn't be taken for granted -- but I don't see them threatening for the national title.
Of course, if Mike Davis is the real deal, and the linebackers hold up against Georgia on September 7, I might be changing my tune...