South Carolina used to be an afterthought. A speed bump. That program that was pesky but never really had the chance to make a move to the big-boy table.
An SEC East championship in 2010 and three straight 11-win seasons from 2011-2013 changed that in a hurry. With three straight top-10 finishes under their belts, the Gamecocks are the hunted, being picked as the favorite to win the SEC East by the media at SEC media days in Hoover, Alabama, earlier this month.
But is it warranted?
As the offseason has progressed, massive holes on the Gamecocks roster go largely ignored while others elsewhere in the division gain plenty of attention. Because of that, I've slowly begun to fall out of love with South Carolina this season.
Yes, Jadeveon Clowney got all of the attention as the star of the defensive line over the last three years, and that attention allowed defensive end Chaz Sutton and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles to shine. Now, all of those players are gone, and head coach Steve Spurrier and defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward are left looking to pick up those pieces.
One of those pieces is defensive tackle J.T. Surratt, who Spurrier expects to be a force this year.
"He's played a lot," Spurrier said in Hoover. "I think he started about all the games last year. He's a good, solid inside player. Defensive end is a position that some guys have got to come around and play."
Other than Surratt, there are a ton of questions. Gerald Dixon and Darius English will likely get the nods at either defensive end spot. Dixon, at 6'2", 274 pounds, is more of the run-stopping defensive end Ward typically likes on the strong side. English, a 6'6", 241-pound edge-rusher, is the most likely candidate to pin his ears back and get after the quarterback.
Inside, Gerald Dixon Jr., Abu Lamin, Phillip Dukes and others will contend for the spot vacated by Quarles.
This group has potential, sure. But can they replicate the success South Carolina had last year with that unit? That's unlikely.
That's a problem because Spurrier needs them to get pressure with four.
Why? Because it will help out another major area of concern, which brings us to the next point.
South Carolina's secondary needs all the help it can get because right now, there are more questions than answers. Victor Hampton left early, and Jimmy Legree exhausted his eligibility, leaving Brison Williams as the most well-known commodity in the back end of the defense.
Williams will likely start the season at cornerback, according to Ryan Wood of The Post and Courier, but will play safety as well.
"I prefer Brison playing safety because when you're a safety, you get to talk to everybody," Ward told Wood. "When you're a corner, you're stuck out on one side of the field. He needs to help everybody get lined up on both sides of the field. Not that the guys don't know how to do it, but that's what he's done."
That speaks to the inexperience on the back end. South Carolina's best player in the secondary will start the season out of position because there's really no other option.
South Carolina is expecting Wesley Green and Chris Lammons, two highly touted freshmen, to come in and make an immediate impact, according to Matt Connolly of GoUpstate.com. If both come in and thrive, that will probably be enough for Ward to get his wish and move Williams back to safety. Things got dicey with those two academically, but both were cleared on Wednesday to join the team, according to Josh Kendall and David Cloninger of GoGamecocks.com.
They'll join an inexperienced cornerback group that includes sophomore Rico McWilliams, freshman Ali Groves, sophomore Jamari Smith and senior Sidney Rhodes.
Green & Lammons give USC 4 true Fr. CBs to go along with McWilliams, Groves, J. Smith, Rhodes & possibly Brison Williams.— Scott Hood (@ScottHood63) July 30, 2014
The Gamecocks were on the brink of having a major personnel problem in the secondary, but they're still depending on true freshmen to make an immediate impact in some way, shape or form. That's much worse than having a scheme problem—which is exactly why Georgia, South Carolina's primary foe in the SEC East, is being viewed as a pretender in some circles.
An inexperienced secondary coupled with an inexperienced defensive line isn't a recipe for success; it's a recipe for disaster.
South Carolina's schedule isn't the toughest in the SEC. In fact, it could even be considered "forgiving." But there are some traps for the Gamecocks.
They get Georgia at home in Week 3, but the Bulldogs do have two weeks to prepare for it while South Carolina is coming off a tricky game against East Carolina. Even if they beat the Bulldogs and hold that important head-to-head tiebreaker, they still draw Auburn out of the West on the road and have to travel to Florida.
Say what you will about the Gators' miserable 4-8 season from a year ago, but that's still a stout defense that made the proper scheme change on offense in one of the toughest environments in college football.
Georgia draws Auburn out of the West, too, but gets a depleted Arkansas team while South Carolina hosts Texas A&M in the season opener. Say what you will about Texas A&M's defense (and most of it will be bad mixed in with uncontrollable laughter), but head coach Kevin Sumlin knows how to get the most out of his offense and is going against a defense that's littered with holes. It's far from a gimme for the Gamecocks.
South Carolina is going to be competitive, no doubt. But there are plenty of hurdles for the Gamecocks to clear before legitimately jumping into the national picture.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.
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