When you figure out South Carolina, let me know. Because I can't. The Gamecocks are going to start the season ranked ninth in both the AP and USA Today polls. It is the first time they have ever been ranked in the top 10 (and only the eighth time they've been ranked at all) in the preseason, but honestly, you could talk me into placing them at No. 5 or No. 25. I just don't know what to think.
Plus: South Carolina won 11 games for the first time in school history in 2011, and a healthy portion of last year's two-deep returns.
Minus: The Gamecocks were quite lucky last season, benefiting from 3.6 points per game of turnovers luck. This came mostly from the fact that they intercepted an unsustainable 37 percent of their overall passes defended (interceptions plus passes broken up). The national average is about 21 percent, and it resulted in about eight more interceptions than they probably should have expected.
Plus: Lucky? They lost their star running back after seven games and had to kick their starting quarterback off the team after five!
Minus: They must replace their best receiver, best offensive lineman, best defensive end (or whatever Melvin Ingram was -- end, tackle, linebacker, whatever), best defensive tackle, two best linebackers, and three best 2011 cornerbacks.
Plus: They return their quarterback, their top three running backs, nine of their top 10 pass targets, four offensive linemen with starting experience, six of their top eight defensive linemen, six of their top eight linebackers, and all of their safeties. Depth trumps individual talent. And besides, they already got used to life without their star receiver since Alshon Jeffery seemed to loaf for half of the season.
Minus: Again, 3.6 points per game of turnover luck in a season that saw them win three games by three points or fewer (and another by five points).
Plus: You don't win 11 games in the SEC by accident.
Minus: How exactly are they supposed to survive a stretch of three-straight top-10 opponents in October?
Plus: Florida probably shouldn't be projected as a top-10 team, so…
You get the idea. South Carolina returns running back Marcus Lattimore, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, quarterback Connor Shaw, and most of last year's non-stars. The 'Cocks must also replace six or seven of the best players on a defense that drove the team through some tough times last fall. Whatever you feel like believing as it pertains to Carolina's fortunes in 2012, good or bad, you have evidence on your side. And I have no idea what I feel like believing.
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. […]
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.
In 2011, South Carolina simultaneously took a step forward (11 wins for the first time ever) and backwards (couldn't repeat its 2010 SEC East title). The defense was potentially S.C.'s best ever, the offense alternated between steps forward and backwards, the special teams was mostly awful, and the result was an 11-2 season that had room for growth.
The primary narrative for the season wasn't Carolina's incredible defense; rather, it centered mostly around the rotating cast of characters on the offensive side of the ball. Connor Shaw began the season as the Gamecocks' starting quarterback, completed just three of nine passes versus East Carolina, and was benched in favor of the flaky Stephen Garcia. The Gamecocks scored 101 points in the first two weeks almost despite Garcia (he completed just 18 of 40 passes), then slowed down considerably. Garcia was just dreadful against Auburn (nine-for-23 with two interceptions), was benched, and then was kicked off the team after approximately 117 disciplinary run-ins in his career. Shaw took over again, surged, regressed, then surged again.
Meanwhile, Marcus Lattimore looked like a Heisman candidate, rushing for 422 yards (6.6 per carry) versus Georgia and Navy … but only rushed for 396 yards (4.0 per carry) in five other games, then tore his ACL and was lost for the season. With star receiver Alshon Jeffery disappearing for long portions of the season, however, the offense somehow did not regress in Lattimore's absence.
S.C. Offense, First Seven Games (With Lattimore): 29.3 Adj. PPG
S.C. Offense, Last Six Games (Without Lattimore): 29.8 Adj. PPG
A 4-1 record in one-possession games defined Carolina's season, which always seemed a step away from greatness and a step away from complete disaster; but losses to Auburn (at home) and Arkansas (in Fayetteville) allowed Georgia to sneak ahead and win the East title. The season was blessed and cursed, exciting and frustrating, and as I've made perfectly clear by now, I have no idea what that means for this fall.
I mean, really, make sense of this:
- South Carolina rode Marcus Lattimore to a huge win over Georgia, and he saved them in an upset bid by Navy. Then they got incredibly average totals from him for four weeks and struggled. Then they lost him for the season and, in terms of overall quality, didn't regress at all.
- The Gamecocks saw significant regression from their No. 1 receiver, Alshon Jeffery, whose games generally fit into three categories: 1) Dominance (he caught nine of 12 passes for 233 yards against Georgia and Nebraska), 2) Short Stuff Only (he caught 13 of 19 passes versus Mississippi State, Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida, but for only 77 yards), and 3) Disappearing Act (he caught four of 13 passes for 63 yards versus Vanderbilt and Clemson). This was not the Jeffery we expected to see -- either he was loafing at times, or defenses went out of their way to remove him from the gameplan (especially after Lattimore got hurt), or both -- but it also didn't consistently impact Carolina's offensive output. He disappeared against Clemson, and the 'Cocks still dominated.
- Connor Shaw was awful (3-for-9 for 21 yards versus East Carolina), then stellar (466 yards, 7.0 per pass, 69 percent completion rate) for two games once Garcia was kicked off the team, then incredibly mediocre (296 yards, 5.4 per pass, 58 percent) for three games, then just incredible for three (657 yards, 11.9 per pass, 75 percent). And the quality of the opponent didn't really matter. He torched Nebraska, Clemson and Mississippi State, while East Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas slowed him down.
- The offensive line ranked a reasonably healthy 35th in Adj. Line Yards, opening solid holes for both Lattimore and his replacements, Brandon Wilds and Kenny Miles. But the 'Cocks ranked 108th in Adj. Sack Rate.
Actually, that last one I can explain: throw the damn ball, Connor. Whereas Garcia was sacked a below-average 5.6 percent of the time, Shaw's sack rate was 10.9 percent. And while run blocking and pass blocking are two different skills, what I'm learning is that if the line yardage and sack rate rankings are that far apart, it's probably on the quarterback, good or bad. Shaw's sack rate wasn't in the neighborhood of Pittsburgh's Tino Sunseri (14 percent) or Ohio State's Braxton Miller (20 percent), but it was far too close for comfort. Shaw is a creator -- he gained 674 pre-sack rushing yards on just 112 carries, and he clearly has a play-maker's mentality -- but sacks are the most inefficient possible outcome of a play that doesn't include a turnover. Throw the ball away sometimes, Connor.
As the theme of this entire preview suggests, there are all sorts of quandaries heading into 2012. Lattimore returns, ready to shoulder another heavy load of carries. But are we going to see more of the Heisman candidate, or more of the grind-it-out-four-yards-at-a-time back? And how much are we going to see backups Miles and Wilds this year to take the load off of Lattimore? (Right now, Miles is No. 2, Wilds No. 3.) Meanwhile, can a line that was solid at run blocking fend off regression following the departures of second-team all-conference tackle Rokevious Watkins and two-year starting guard Terrence Campbell? Four players return with starting experience (62 career starts, 40 from center T.J. Johnson), which certainly isn't bad, and intriguing four-star redshirt freshman Brandon Shell could be ready for prime time sooner than later.
And of course, questions persist in the passing game, as well. Whether he was going full-speed or not, Jeffery occupied a ton of attention from opposing defenses. Now that attention will shift to junior Ace Sanders (383 yards, 8.7 per target, 66 percent catch rate) and sophomores Bruce Ellington and Nick Jones (combined: 354 yards, 9.6 per target, 78 percent catch rate). All three were strong possession receivers last year (which makes Shaw's high sack rate even more baffling), but Jeffery was the big-play guy, and of the nine leading returning receivers (including running backs and tight ends), only one averaged better than 12.4 yards per catch last year (sophomore tight end Rory Anderson, who gained 188 yards in eight catches). Somebody needs to be able to stretch the field so South Carolina can take full advantage of Lattimore's skill set. Who will it be, a newcomer like redshirt freshman Shamier Jeffery or four-star freshmen Shaq Roland and Jody Fuller?
There are really interesting pieces here, but there are even more questions.
The uncertainty does not stop on offense. Despite a mediocre run defense (49th in Rushing S&P+, 88th in Adj. Line Yards), South Carolina fielded a wonderfully successful defense primarily because nobody could throw the ball on them. The Gamecocks ranked fourth in the country in Passing S&P+, and they were absolutely devastating after the first couple of weeks of the season.
In their final nine games versus FBS competition, South Carolina allowed more than 160 net passing yards (passing yards minus sack yardage) just one time. Arkansas gained 295 yards on 38 attempts (a healthy 7.8 per attempt), but the other eight opponents (Vanderbilt, Auburn, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Florida, Clemson, Nebraska) combined for the following stats: 44 percent completion rate, four touchdowns, 13 interceptions, an 11.6 percent sack rate, and a minuscule 2.8 yards per pass attempt. (Clemson, Kentucky and Vanderbilt combined to average 0.8 yards per attempt. 0.8!) No, there were not many potent passing attacks in this list (only Clemson could really claim one, and Sammy Watkins was gimpy when the teams played), but the 'Cocks treated SEC passing games like Southern Conference passing games. They were devastating.
Consider it a red flag, then, that a defense so reliant on its pass defense must replace its best defensive end (Melvin Ingram: 15.0 tackles for loss, 10 sacks), its best defensive tackle (Travian Robertson: 8.0 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks), its most successful attacking linebacker (Antonio Allen: 9.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions, four forced fumbles), and its top three cornerbacks, including star Stephon Gilmore (four interceptions, seven passes broken up). Is there star power returning? Absolutely. But when you have a rather one-dimensional defense, and you lose a lot from that dimension, it is cause for concern.
At first glance, cornerback is much more of a concern than pass rush. Despite losing Ingram, South Carolina boasts potentially the two best ends in the SEC, at least outside of Baton Rouge; all-world sophomore Jadeveon Clowney and senior Devin Taylor combined for 20.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks last year (Clowney forced five fumbles to boot), and they are backed up by quite a few exciting players, including junior Chaz Sutton (3.5 tackles for loss). Depth at the position could come in handy, as evidently Spurrier and defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward intend to line Clowney up everywhere on the field, including middle linebacker. Opponents will have to account for him on every play, and that could open up the field for other playmakers like Taylor, "SPUR" linebacker (think OLB/safety hybrid) DeVonte Holloman (4.0 tackles for loss, one interception, four passes broken up), and senior linebackers Shaq Wilson and Quin Smith.
At cornerback, meanwhile, let's just say that there is a lot of pressure on four-star sophomore Victor Hampton. Hampton managed to defense four passes (one pick, three broken up) in a backup role last year, which is a good sign. But it is looking like he will be the No. 1 corner this year after the departures of Gilmore, Marty Markett and C.C. Whitlock, and the continued struggle of senior Akeem Auguste to overcome a groin injury. Auguste missed almost all of last season and reaggravated his injury this past weekend. A fierce pass rush cures a lot of ills, but corners will obviously still have to make some plays, and this position is quite unproven.
Also unproven: Carolina's ability to stop the run. Not exactly a minor detail there, huh? Sophomore Kelcy Quarles and the tackles got pushed around a bit last year, as opponents were able to take some advantage of Carolina's overall aggressiveness. And it is not immediately clear that the Gamecocks will be any better in this regard. They got away with it last year because of the ridiculous quality of the pass defense. But if there is any drop-off in that regard, the run defense could take center stage in a disappointing season.
When you're a Top 10 team in the preseason, and the only East division team ranked ahead of you (Georgia) has to visit Columbia, you will probably be disappointed if your team doesn't make the SEC title game, right? Even if you must immediately travel to LSU and Florida after the Georgia game? We'll set the bar there, since that's probably where Gamecock fans are setting it.
After two years and 20 wins, Steve Spurrier's chest is indeed poking out a bit further these days, and he just can't stop himself from needling Georgia whenever possible. Under his watch, the South Carolina football program has become more sturdily-built than ever before. But there are quite a few red flags in regard to this year's team. The schedule does the Gamecocks no favors, forcing them to start the season at Vanderbilt and sending them to Baton Rouge and Gainesville after the big home game versus Georgia. That alone might make it difficult for the Gamecocks to remain in the Top 10 at the end of the season, but considering South Carolina's known weaknesses, the schedule is even trickier. The dicey run defense has to face Vanderbilt, Missouri, LSU and Arkansas. The "questionable until we see how Ace Sanders fares as a No. 1 receiver, and if Connor Shaw can actually make quicker decisions this time around" passing game must face the tremendous Georgia and LSU secondaries, back-to-back.
This season could take so many different turns, especially if luck is not Carolina's friend this time around, but at the same time there is no truly likely loss beyond the LSU game. To me, anything between 7-5 and 11-1 is a distinct possibility. And please don't ask me to commit to either extreme.
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