South Carolina might be college football's most experienced team in 2014

Running back Mike Davis has been mentioned for months now as a potential Heisman candidate. - Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Experience is a hard thing to quantify in college football, but one metric puts the Gamecocks at the top.

South Carolina lost both the most talented athlete in school history and arguably its best quarterback ever. And yet the Cocks are in position to reach 10 or more wins for the fourth year in a row, extending what's already been by far the best run the program's ever had.

How do you bounce back from losing Jadeveon Clowney and Connor Shaw? By losing very little else. We knew Carolina returned a ton of starters, but there's depth in Columbia as well. Phil Steele calculated the total number of returning players with 2013 game experience at every school in the country, with South Carolina ranking No. 1.

And not just No. 1 nationally, but far ahead of most of the SEC -- Mississippi State's at No. 3, but the next SEC East team is Florida at No. 57. Contenders Georgia and Missouri rank Nos. 73 and 111 in experience, respectively (and to think they once played in the "Old Man Football" game).

Here's the most experienced team in each conference, according to Steele's numbers:

Conference best (overall rank) Team Returning lettermen
SEC (No. 1) South Carolina 85.29%
Conference USA (No. 2) UTSA 84.62%
Mountain West (No. 4) Air Force 80.77%
American (No. 5) Tulsa 80.30%
Big Ten (No. 7) Northwestern 79.71%
MAC (No. 9) Miami (Ohio) 79.37%
Big 12 (No. 11) West Virginia 78.33%
Sun Belt (No. 15) Louisiana-Lafayette 77.22%
ACC (No. 17) Wake Forest 77.14%
Pac-12 (No. 18) Colorado 76.00%
Independents (No. 56) Army 70.24%

Head coach Steve Spurrier knew something like this was coming. From the middle of last season:

We've got the youngest team. We try not to stress that too much because I think sometimes that's an excuse word a lot of coaches use if they're getting beat. This team should be very good next year. We're not into next year yet, but you always sort of keep an eye on the future.

What's all that experience correlate to? We don't know, exactly. We do know that returning nine or more starters on one side of the ball correlates to a big boost. Five to eight usually means holding steady or getting slightly better, and South Carolina's near the upper end of that spectrum on offense and defense (depending on how you tally, at least).

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South Carolina brings back an experienced starting quarterback in Dylan Thompson, a future star running back in Mike Davis, almost its entire offensive line two-deep, and talent on defense. Losing Clowney and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles will mean a unit rebuild, as will the loss of both starting cornerbacks. The latter was SC's biggest concern entering the offseason, but the Cocks shored up mightily on Signing Day, ending up with three four-star freshman cornerbacks.

I had South Carolina in the Belk Bowl in my January (January!) bowl projections. While I heard from angry fans of Tennessee and Auburn and every mid-major besides Louisiana-Lafayette, South Carolina fan rage topped the combined fury of every other fan base combined. In my defense, the Belk Bowl is moving up to become one of the SEC's bigger games, so it's not like anyone was sending the Gamecocks to go punt around with an 8-4 AAC team. Also in my defense, that cornerback haul hadn't arrived yet.

The point is this: not sure yet where South Carolina ends up in the August version of those projections. But let's just say it won't be the Belk.

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