2011 Season Preview: Talkative Ball Coaches And The South Carolina Gamecocks

With the talent on hand, South Carolina's 2011 season might make Steve Spurrier pretty mouthy again. If they can handle an odd, trying schedule anyway.

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. As always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words. And be sure to purchase your Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 today! The college portion is available for just $5, and if you pre-order the entire book, you can download the college portion instantly.

If South Carolina's mascot wasn't already named Cocky, they'd have had to change it when they hired Steve Spurrier. The most gloriously cocky, refreshingly arrogant college coach in recent history won big at both Duke (!) and Florida before taking a detour into the NFL and realizing that it's not as much fun to coach when you don't have extreme talent advantages over your rivals. Since returning to the NCAA ranks, he has fought through some humbling seasons at South Carolina, never finishing with losing records but never winning too much, and continuing to learn that your strut is marginalized when you're losing more than you prefer.

Q. Those of us who have been coming to this for a lot of years, we welcome you back. But last year we saw a Steve Spurrier that was kind of taking stock. Did last year's season change you back to the guy we know and love? If so, what's on future along with your plans beyond this year?

COACH SPURRIER: Well, again, most coaches, if they win a lot, win a lot of championships, they do talk a little bit more. You'll notice that all around. I haven't won enough to be very talkative lately. That's just the way life is, I think.

There's a chance that the talkative Spurrier might be ready to make an extended appearance. And honestly, it's about time. It's amazing how some losing can make a coach more likable to outsiders. I hated Spurrier at Florida because I had no attachment to Florida and found the arrogance grating. Now, I yearn for it. In a day and age that finds coaches offering less and less personality (Les Miles can only do so much, guys), a chatty, foot-in-mouth Spurrier is exactly what we need.

Working your way up the talent ladder in the SEC is awfully difficult. At Vanderbilt, new coach James Franklin is putting together an incredible-for-Vandy 2012 recruiting class, and it's still probably only going to finish in the middle of the pack, at best, in this conference. He will still have to employ some incredible underdog tactics to win. Spurrier, however, has been slowly stocking up on true, difference-making talent. The Gamecocks probably still don't have quite the depth of the Alabama's of the world, but ... Marcus Lattimore? Alshon Jeffery? Stephon Gilmore? Jadeveon Clowney? That's the bluest of blue-chip talent.

Every new Gamecocks squad employs a little more breakthrough talent than the last; the 2011 iteration will be no different, and Spurrier knows it. If the 'Cocks can overcome a typically brutal slate (while division rivals Georgia face a slightly more forgiving path), then potentially the most proven team in the SEC East will get a second chance at a conference title in December. And oh, the talking we will have to/get to endure.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 9-5 | Adj. Record: 11-3 | Final F/+ Rk**: 11
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
2-Sep Southern Miss 41-13 W 42.4 - 23.2 W
11-Sep Georgia 17-6 W 36.4 - 17.4 W
18-Sep Furman 38-19 W 24.1 - 30.1 L
25-Sep at Auburn 27-35 L 38.6 - 28.4 W
9-Oct Alabama 35-21 W 53.9 - 20.9 W
16-Oct at Kentucky 28-31 L 39.0 - 27.1 W
23-Oct at Vanderbilt 21-7 W 29.8 - 15.5 W
30-Oct Tennessee 38-24 W 35.1 - 26.6 W
6-Nov Arkansas 20-41 L 22.8 - 29.4 L
13-Nov at Florida 36-14 W 34.7 - 10.0 W
20-Nov Troy 69-24 W 44.1 - 16.7 W
27-Nov at Clemson 29-7 W 23.6 - 5.7 W
4-Dec vs Auburn 17-56 L 25.8 - 31.9 L
31-Dec vs Florida State 17-26 L 26.4 - 20.5 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 30.9 38 23.1 43
Adj. Points Per Game 34.0 17 21.7 24

South Carolina's 2010 season is yet another reason why schedule adjustments are an absolute necessity for true evaluation. The Gamecocks finished 9-5, a record that suggests they were solid if unspectacular. And yet, they ranked 11th in the overall F/+ ratings, ahead of 11-2 teams like Wisconsin (12th), LSU (13th), Oklahoma State (14th) and Michigan State (11th) and ten-win teams like Florida State (15th), Missouri (16th) and Nebraska (20th). The Ratings say none of the teams below them would have had a chance in the world of doing any better than 9-5 against the schedule the 'Cocks faced. They went 1-3 versus the F/+ Top 10 and 8-2 versus everyone else. They lost to the No. 1 team (Auburn) twice away from home, beat the No. 3 team (Alabama) and fell to No. 7 (Arkansas). They lost on a neutral field to No. 15 Florida State, and in their only true glitch, they lost at No. 47 Kentucky despite playing rather well overall (UK recovered four of the game's five fumbles, including a muffed fourth-quarter punt that might have allowed S.C. to salt the game away).

Despite strong overall quality, there's no question that the 'Cocks faded a bit as the season progressed.

First Five Games: South Carolina 39.1 Adj. PPG, Opponents 24.0 (+15.1)
Next Six Games: South Carolina 34.3, Opponents 20.8 (+13.5)
Last Three Games: South Carolina 25.3, Opponents 19.4 (+5.9)

The defense overcame some early injuries and improved as the year progressed -- only twice in the last ten games did they play at a below-average level -- but late in the season, Bad Stephen Garcia made an appearance, an increasingly creaky Marcus Lattimore got knocked out of the bowl game, and the offense limped home to end the season.

Heading into 2011, it appears that every major cast member on offense returns, while the defense adds a potential difference maker at an area of need and gets a few key players back from injuries. There are a lot of reasons to like the 'Cocks in 2011 -- more reasons than for any other East team -- but the schedule might not be any easier this time around.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 13 12 19
RUSHING 21 21 20 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 9 9 18 28
Standard Downs 18 15 23 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 12 5 15 55
Redzone 3 4 5
Q1 Rk 8 1st Down Rk 22
Q2 Rk 15 2nd Down Rk 9
Q3 Rk 56 3rd Down Rk 10
Q4 Rk 16

Few freshmen make an impact as immediate and important as the one Marcus Lattimore (1,197 yards, 4.8 per carry, +11.4 Adj. POE, 17 TD) made on South Carolina's offense in 2010. The five-star back from Duncan, SC, chose the Gamecocks over Auburn, Penn State and Oregon, and proceeded to immediately provide Steve Spurrier with a steady, workhorse back. But I'm willing to wager that Lattimore the Workhorse Back was perhaps the fourth-most important player on the South Carolina offense behind 1) Good Stephen Garcia, 2) Alshon Jeffery and 3) Lattimore the Receiver. His +11.4 Adj. POE was a strong total, but it barely fit him into the nation's top 30 overall. Where he separated himself was through the air. His 412 receiving yards were better than those of 10 teams' No. 1 targets! That he averaged 10.0 yards per target as a running back was incredible. But two other well-known players were of equal importance.

When Stephen Garcia (3,059 yards, 8.8 per pass, 64% completion rate, 20 TD, 14 INT) was making good decisions, or at least avoiding terrible ones, this South Carolina offense was damn near magnificent.

South Carolina (Garcia Throwing Two INTs or More): 27.6 Adj. PPG (7 TD, 11 INT)
South Carolina (Garcia Throwing One INT or Fewer): 37.6 Adj. PPG (13 TD, 3 INT)

Mistakes begot more mistakes from Garcia in 2010, and while that's common in a lot of players, it was magnified with this one. A fourth-quarter fumble against Auburn (the first time around) led to another fumble. An early interception against Florida State led to two more before half. It isn't easy being a Spurrier quarterback -- one mistake, and you could get yanked; but heading into his senior season after what I will just call an eventful offseason, Garcia will at some point need to show a level of maturity and funk avoidance that has eluded him to date. He will battle it out for the starting job with sophomore Conner Shaw (223 yards, 6.8 per pass, 70% completion rate, 1 TD, 2 INT), who took fewer chances (for better and worse) while getting his feet wet last fall.

When Garcia had his head on straight, he was able to get the ball to perhaps the best No. 1 receiver in the country, Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery was simply amazing; he was targeted with 36% of his team's passes, easily the highest percentage among major conference receivers. Only one player in the major conference top ten (Auburn's Darvin Adams) managed to match Jeffery's 11.5-yards-per-target average, and in all, only Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon could perhaps surpass the season Jeffery had. He was really, really good. In games in which he had at least one 40+ yard reception, S.C.'s overall Adj. PPG was a stout 38.0. (Other games: 28.8 Adj. PPG.) He was every bit as important as Lattimore in 2010, and he will be so again in 2011.

Other tidbits:

  • The offensive line was decent last year (some of the iffy sack rate can be pinned on Garcia's desire to make plays), and despite the loss of three solid contributors, four players with starting experience (70 career starts) return. Center T.J. Johnson is excellent, while tackles Kyle Nunn and Rokevious Watkins and guard Terrence Campbell are entering their second full seasons as starters.
  • It is easy to mention Lattimore and Jeffery and stop, but no offense can succeed with just two major weapons. These two come close, but contributions will be needed from another running back -- Kenny Miles (152 yards, 3.8 per carry, -5.1 Adj. POE), perhaps? -- and receivers like Ace Sanders (316 yards, 12.6 per catch, 72% catch rate, 2 TD), D.L. Moore (164 yards, 9.6 per catch, 62% catch rate), Jason Barnes (63 yards, 10.5 per catch, 43% catch rate, ahead of Sanders on the post-spring depth chart) and maybe incoming four-star freshman Damiere Byrd.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 6 6 9
RUSHING 3 3 4 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 20 17 22 7
Standard Downs 8 11 9 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 15 14 20 20
Redzone 10 15 7
Q1 Rk 3 1st Down Rk 9
Q2 Rk 10 2nd Down Rk 21
Q3 Rk 10 3rd Down Rk 9
Q4 Rk 42

Take it away, coach.

Q. When you look at your best players on offense, your group of wide receivers, your runningback, maybe a couple guys on defense, is that group of players comparable to your teams at Florida, your best players at Florida?

COACH SPURRIER: Well, we haven't been yet. We haven't been yet. Can we? We hope so. Talk about defense a little bit, we have Stephon Gilmore at corner, Devin Taylor the other defensive end. We're hoping with Devin coming on one end, Jadeveon coming up the other end or somewhere, we're going to have a good pass-rush. I think we finished dead last in third-down defense last year. We couldn't get the other team off the field on third down as well as we should have. We think we're going to hopefully improve there.

First of all, everything's relative. South Carolina ranked in the nation's top 25 in every single above category but one: fourth quarter defense. Third-down defense was not so much of a problem for S.C. as was the fact that they played against some incredible third-down offenses. The pass defense was rather maligned, but again, it's all relative -- the pass defense was still Top 20 overall.

The good news, of course, is that perhaps the biggest weakness -- pass rush -- gets a boost from the addition of the nation's No. 1 recruit in 2011, end Jadeveon Clowney. At 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, Clowney could team with Devin Taylor (39.5 tackles, 13.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 2 FR, 8 PBU) to convert the Gamecock's Top 20 pass rush into Top 10, and at that point it is difficult to find any weakness here. The line is suddenly incredibly deep with Taylor, Clowney and Melvin Ingram (22.5 tackles, 11.0 TFL/sacks) at end and the combination of Travian Robertson (35.0 tackles, 10.0 TFL/sacks), Byron Jerideau (8.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks in six games) and a pair of four-star freshmen -- Kelcy Quarles and Phillip Dukes -- at tackle. That is a hellacious two-deep. The line didn't make quite enough plays last year (Taylor was eighth on the team in tackles, Robertson 10th; you need a bit more from a four-man line), but that might not be an issue this fall.

Obvious statements are obvious, but an improved pass rush could do wonders for the secondary. D.J. Swearinger (58.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 5 PBU) is a rock solid strong safety, and Spurrier just cannot stop raving about corner Stephon Gilmore (72.5 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 2 PBU), whose stat line looks more like that of a linebacker. There is playing time available at the other two positions, however. DeVonte Hollomon (61.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 3 PBU) has moved back to his natural SPUR linebacker role, paving the way for some potential early playing time for four-star freshmen Sheldon Royster and Brison Williams. Corner could be well-manned by either Akeem Auguste (47.5 tackles, 4 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU) or C.C. Whitlock (19.0 tackles, 1 INT, 4 PBU).

Other tidbits:

  • With Holloman once again entering the mix and middle linebacker Shaq Wilson (63.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU in 2009) returning from an injury redshirt just in time to replace Josh Dickerson, linebacker depth is now quite the strength. Antonio Allen (54.0 tackles, 10.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 4 PBU), Quin Smith (39.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF), Damario Jeffery (30.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU) and Rodney Paulk (27.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks) give defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson some outstanding options, to say the least. Injuries hurt in the present tense and often help in the future tense.
  • Opponents pretty clearly knew they couldn't run on South Carolina in 2010, so they didn't even try. Passing was the only way to succeed, even if it was only sometimes successful. If Clowney and a deeper line have the intended effect, then the way opponents attack the Gamecocks becomes much more complicated.

South Carolina's 2010 Season Set to Music

We'll go with Dinosaur Jr.'s "Almost Ready."

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 19
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 14
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** 0 / -3
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 13 (7, 6)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -2.6

I'm not saying South Carolina should be considered the far-and-away favorite for the SEC East, not with their schedule. But they absolutely have the best combination of talent and worthwhile experience in the division. And I would be willing to say that if this exact team were wearing Florida Gator helmets this fall, they would be considered national title contenders. But stigma dies hard, and even though South Carolina took a giant step forward last season with their first East title, they probably still have quite a bit to prove.

The schedule sets up like those ghastly NBA Finals series: two road games, four home games, three road games, four home games. Going by Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 projections, the biggest game could be the second one, when the 'Cocks take on Georgia in Athens. The Bulldogs have a much easier schedule, and even though South Carolina is projected to rank higher overall (13th in Proj. F/+ to Georgia's 21st), they are projected to end up with the same number of conference wins. Take out the 'Dawgs in Athens, and they are in the driver's seat before their home schedule even begins. This is a really, really good team, one that addressed its weaknesses as well as could be imagined. Now it's time to watch the Ol' Ball Coach get mouthy again.

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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