There has been a lot of discussion revolving around the South Carolina football team and their rise to No. 3 in the polls in lieu of a 35-7 thrashing of previously fifth-ranked Georgia.
Some say it has been the addition of standout running back Marcus Lattimore that has been the biggest factor to their unprecedented rise to the elite.
Others have given consistent quarterback play by Connor Shaw the credit for being the biggest difference between previous teams and this one.
Fans and pundits alike have been calling head coach Steve Spurrier the savior of a team plagued by mediocrity for much of its history.
All of these factors have played significant roles in South Carolina’s new-found success, but the overarching factor that all can agree on is that this team is propelled by its defense.
Especially the defensive line.
It’s easy to attribute South Carolina’s success to the addition of "man-child" Jadaveon Clowney after he spent last Saturday night powering through, leap-frogging and just basically bullying any would-be blockers in his path.
The truth is, South Carolina’s success, dating back to at least 2006, is thanks in large part to the play of dominant defensive linemen.
(2006-2009) Combined record: 28-23
With the bevy of talent on South Carolina’s current roster, it’s easy to forget what a dominant force former Gamecock pass-rusher Eric Norwood really was.
Norwood exploded onto the scene his freshman year back in 2006 with seven sacks and helped orchestrate a Carolina defense that finished ranked in the top 25 in both fewest points allowed and sacks.
Led by an aggressive defense, South Carolina went on to win their fourth bowl game in school history that year, and Steve Spurrier found himself one of the most versatile defensive pass-rushers in college football in only his second year as head coach.
While listed as a linebacker, you would be hard-pressed to find a Gamecock fan who doesn’t remember Norwood with his hand in the ground, ready to pounce and make plays.
Norwood finished his career at South Carolina as a four-time All-SEC award recipient and two-time All-American.
He is currently the SEC’s all-time leader in sacks (29) and tackles for loss (55) for his career, and he was an integral part of establishing the standard for South Carolina defensive linemen.
After Norwood’s impressive freshmen year, recruiting top-level defensive line prospects proved an easier chore for Spurrier and Co.
Ladi Ajiboye, Clifton Geathers, Cliff Matthews, Melvin Ingram and Travian Robertson all joined the South Carolina football team in 2007, and all would end up contributing significantly to top defensive units for years.
All of these players were mentioned in All-SEC talks at some point in their careers, and perhaps most impressive is that all of them (except Ajiboye) play in the NFL.
Perhaps the most electric playmaker to hit the defensive line since the days of Norwood, Melvin Ingram led the team in sacks (10) his senior year, was an All-American and selected No. 18 overall in this past year’s NFL draft by the San Diego Chargers.
The defensive line talent Spurrier’s staff brought in paved the way for several successful seasons, including four consecutive years of bowl appearances (2008-2011) and the team’s first ever division title (2010), all culminating in last year’s first 10-plus-win season in school history (2011).
Despite a revolving door of hot-shot receiving talents, unrealized potential at skill positions and the toughest schedules college football has to offer, South Carolina’s defensive line remained a stalwart for a program on its way to reaching the next level.
As LSU ‘s Les Miles begins to prepare for his showdown with the Gamecocks this coming Saturday, one of the fundamental questions he will have to answer is how to slow down a pass rush that has come up with the second-most sacks in the country.
The additions of 6’8" defensive end Devin Taylor, Kelcy Quarles and the No. 1-rated recruit in the country from last season, Jadaveon Clowney, have given the Gamecocks a fresh crop of superstar defensive linemen to replace those mentioned previously.
It’s not just getting to the quarterback that this unit excels at, either.
Georgia’s pair of highly touted freshman running backs—Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall—were averaging 7.9 and 8.2 yards per carry, respectively, prior to heading to Columbia on Saturday.
Gurley was the SEC’s leader in rushing yards (536) and touchdowns (nine).
The Gamecocks ended up holding the dynamic duo to 76 yards rushing on 25 carries for no touchdowns.
Without the consistent success of the defensive line dating back to 2006, South Carolina having this kind of talent would be unheard of.
If the age-old mantra that the game is won and lost in the trenches really is true, you can bet that the 2012 version of the South Carolina Gamecocks will be just fine.