When you've won 11 games in three consecutive seasons and defeated Clemson in five straight years, what is there left to accomplish at South Carolina?
Win the program's first SEC championship, of course, but without the most physically talented player in college football and the conference's most underrated quarterback.
That's what Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier is facing as 2014 spring practice begins Tuesday. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, to the surprise of absolutely no one, declared for the NFL draft the moment the Capital One Bowl ended. Quarterback Connor Shaw was quietly 27-5 as a starter, but his career has come and gone.
There are other question marks too, namely at just about every level of the defense.
Cornerbacks Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree are gone, and Ahmad Christian is transferring from the program. The Gamecocks are inexperienced and thin at that position—at least for the next couple of months until the incoming recruiting class arrives on campus.
There's also the matter of replacing Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton along the D-line. Combined, the three accounted for roughly two-thirds of the defense's 25 sacks and roughly 39 percent of the tackles for loss.
Yet, despite the losses, South Carolina is, and rightfully should be, an early favorite to win the SEC East division this season.
The Head Ball Coach has what could be one of the better pure passers in the SEC in Dylan Thompson. Though Thompson's playing time has been limited over the years, he's performed generally well in relief duty (1,827 passing yards and 14 touchdowns to five interceptions).
Not to mention, Thompson will have an excellent offensive line returning largely intact. In short, there isn't as much anxiety surrounding the quarterback spot as there could be.
South Carolina's backfield is also loaded with talent, highlighted by running back Mike Davis, who rushed 1,183 yards in '13. At receiver, Shaq Roland and Pharoh Cooper could be primed for breakout years.
When double-digit wins become the norm as they have for the Gamecocks, the expectations are raised.
|Most SEC Wins Since 2011|
|Steve Spurrier||South Carolina||18-6|
Don't count out Missouri, though. The Tigers are likely to get plenty of divisional title consideration as well.
As B/R's SEC lead writer Barrett Sallee writes, the challenge for Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel is sustaining the success he achieved in 2013 when the Tigers won the East division.
Spurrier, meanwhile, has shown that he can sustain success in Columbia, S.C., even though it took him several years to get there. Since 2011, only Alabama's Nick Saban, Georgia's Mark Richt and LSU's Les Miles have won more conference games.
He's being rewarded handsomely for it. In January, university trustees approved a raise and extension through 2018 that would pay Spurrier $4 million annually.
Spurrier has South Carolina humming along at a high level. Though there are key departures, the belief is that the Gamecocks can fill the voids without much of a drop-off.
That's a feat that's rarely pulled off easily.
If South Carolina can get back to double-digit wins in 2014 and potentially bring home a conference title, it would be a testament to the job Spurrier has done.
At a place where success hasn't always come easy, no less.
Ben Kercheval is the lead writer for college football. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.