It's a good time to be a Gamecock…but it could be so much better.
Coming off a third consecutive 11-win season, South Carolina enters 2014 ranked No. 9 in both of the major preseason polls and even received a first-place vote from one of the coaches.
It's not hard to feel unfulfilled, however, considering what these past few seasons have reaped. How often does a team win 33 games in three years but not claim a single division title? How often does it do that when it's beaten the division champion all three years?
This season marks the exit of quarterback Connor Shaw and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, two players who will surely be remembered among the best handful in program history. Also gone are valuable contributors such as Kelcy Quarles and Victor Hampton.
There are plenty of players to replace.
But South Carolina would not rank as a consensus top-10 team—not to mention the conference media's favorite to win the SEC East—if it didn't have the pieces in place to overcome those losses.
Will this be the year that it finally breaks through?
|Title||Name||Years w/ Team|
|Head Coach||Steve Spurrier||10|
|Co-Offensive Coordinator||Shawn Elliott||5|
|Co-Offensive Coordinator||Steve Spurrier Jr.||10|
|Defensive Coordinator||Lorenzo Ward||6|
|Quarterbacks Coach||G.A. Mangus||6|
|Running Backs Coach||Everette Sands||3|
|Wide Receivers Coach||Steve Spurrier Jr.||10|
|Tight Ends Coach||G.A. Mangus||6|
|Offensive Line Coach||Shawn Elliott||5|
|Defensive Line Coach||Deke Adams||2|
|Linebackers/Spurs Coach||Kirk Botkin||3|
|Defensive Backs Coach||Grady Brown||3|
|Special Teams Coordinator||Joe Robinson||3|
Coaching stability is something that everybody understands the importance of—on principle—but still tends to underrate. It's almost as valuable to return a whole staff intact as it is to return a whole position group, but the latter is inevitably more talked-about.
South Carolina is about as stable as it gets on the sideline, starting, of course, with the Old Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier. Having his son, Steve Jr., return beside him for a 10th season is the icing on the cake, especially considering how good last year's offense was.
Lorenzo Ward remains one of the hottest names in the realm of assistant coaching and should get a head coaching job soon enough. South Carolina fans cannot expect him to hang around forever, but they can live in the moment and reap the reward of his sixth season.
Outside of the coordinators, things look just as promising. Especially on the recruiting trail—where Deke Adams (9), G.A. Mangus (16) and Everette Sands (18) all rank in the top 20 of 247Sports' 2015 recruiter rankings—this is one of the deepest staffs in America.
That bodes well with the climate of the other top teams in the conference. Alabama is breaking in a new offensive coordinator (and a controversial one at that). Ditto for Florida (minus the controversial part). Georgia is doing the same thing on defense. LSU and Auburn are still in just their second year of new offensive systems.
South Carolina is the only top-six contender in the SEC whose staff has held firm for more than a couple of seasons.
That is something to feel pretty darn good about.
What to Watch for on Offense
|1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|QB||Dylan Thompson (Sr.)||Connor Mitch (Fr.)||Perry Orth (So.)|
|RB||Mike Davis (Jr.)||Brandon Wilds (Jr.)||Shon Carson (Jr.)|
|FB||Connor McLaurin (Sr.)||Jordan Diaz (Sr.)||Gerald Turner (Fr.)|
|WR||Shaq Roland (Jr.)||Shamier Jeffery (Jr.)||Terry Googer (Fr.)|
|WR||Pharoh Cooper (So.)||Damiere Byrd (Sr.)||K.J. Brent (Jr.)|
|WR||Nick Jones (Sr.)||Kane Whitehurst (Jr.)||Carlton Heard (Jr.)|
|TE||Rory Anderson (Sr.)||Jerell Adams (Jr.)||Drew Owens (Jr.)|
|LT||Corey Robinson (Sr.)||Mason Zandi (So.)||Donell Stanley (Fr.)*|
|LG||A.J. Cann (Sr.)||Brock Stadnik (So.)||Malik Young (Fr.)|
|C||Cody Waldrop (So.)||Clayton Stadnik (So.)||Alan Knott (Fr.)|
|RG||Mike Matulis (Jr.)*||Will Sport (Jr.)||D.J. Park (Fr.)|
|RT||Brandon Shell (Jr.)||Na'Ty Rodgers (Fr.)||Cody Gibson (Sr.)**|
Source: GamecocksOnline.com / 247Sports / Author Projections
*see: injury news
**also working at tight end
It's rare for an offense to lose its long-time starting quarterback (Shaw), its leading receiver (Bruce Ellington) and a two-year starter at right guard (Ronald Patrick) but return the following year with so much confidence and so few question areas.
Fifth-year senior Dylan Thompson has seen a ton of game action at quarterback the past two seasons. Even though he looked shaky in the first three quarters at Missouri last year, he inspires confidence from coaches, teammates and fans alike.
Mike Davis is an All-SEC-type running back (if not more), and the offensive line—led by arguably the best guard in the country in A.J. Cann—rated as my No. 25 overall position group in college football.
In Shaq Roland, Pharoh Cooper, Nick Jones and Damiere Byrd, the Gamecocks also have a group of receivers with a fairly low basement (how bad could those four possibly be?) and a very high ceiling.
Roland in particular might be poised for a big season, but even the untapped potential of Byrd is worth feeling good about.
In short, the offense should be, well, more of the same. It should honestly be even better. Losing Shaw, Ellington and Patrick hurts, but compared with other programs, that attrition is minimal. And South Carolina was stocked well at each of their positions.
Last year's offense finished No. 5 in the country on the Football Outsiders F/+ ratings, trailing only Texas A&M, Ohio State, Florida State and Baylor. Other teams might post bigger raw numbers, but those are inflated by tempo and an excess of plays. South Carolina's offense is efficient, which helps on both sides of the ball.
A lot depends on Thompson, but another top-five finish is in play.
What to Watch for on Defense
|1st String||2nd String||3rd String|
|DE||Gerald Dixon (So.)||Mason Harris (Jr.)||Devin Washington (Fr.)*|
|DT||J.T. Surratt (Sr.)||Abu Lamin (So.)||Kelsey Griffin (So.)|
|DT||Gerald Dixon Jr. (Jr.)||Phillip Dukes (Jr.)||Deon Green (Fr.)|
|DE||Darius English (So.)||David Johnson (Fr.)||Cedrick Cooper (Jr.)|
|MLB||Kaiwan Lewis (Jr.)||T.J. Holloman (So.)||Marcquis Roberts (So.)|
|WLB||Skai Moore (So.)||Jonathan Walton (So.)||Bryson Allen-Williams (Fr.)**|
|SPR||Sharrod Golightly (Sr.)||Jordan Diggs (So.)||Larenz Bryant (So.)|
|CB||Brison Williams (Sr.)||Rico McWilliams (So.)||Ali Groves (Fr.)|
|SS||Chris Moody (So.)||Kadetrix Marcus (Sr.)||Darin Smalls (Fr.)|
|FS||Chaz Elder (So.)||T.J. Gurley (Jr.)||Jasper Sasser (Fr.)|
|CB||Al Harris Jr. (Fr.)||Wesley Green (Fr.)||Chris Lammons (Fr.)|
GamecocksOnline.com / 247Sports / Author Projections
*see: injury news
**first-team BOB in 3-4 defense (see below)
The biggest thing to watch for on South Carolina's defense is difficult to impart on a depth chart: a switch to a 3-4 alignment.
This will not be South Carolina's base set, but it will be something the team implements. How often it implements the 3-4 will depend on the opponent, the situation and, obviously, how well it works.
The move plays to the strength of South Carolina's defense: the linebackers. Having lost three of four starters on the defensive line and in the secondary, the Gamecocks must get as many linebackers on the field as possible and put them in favorable situations.
"When you don’t have a big-name pass rusher that’s proven himself, and your most experience coming back is at the linebacker spot," Ward told Ron Morris of The State, "you’ve got to make sure you’ve got your players on the field in the right position."
Freshman linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams—the highest-rated player in the incoming class—is listed with an asterisk because, although he's not a rotation player in the base 4-2-5 formation, linebackers coach Kirk Botkin said he holds the edge to start over Larenz Bryant and Cedrick Cooper at the BOB position in the 3-4 alignment, per David Cloninger of GoGamecocks.com (subscription required).
That could be a lot of fun to watch.
In either formation, though, the play of the linemen and defensive backs will ultimately decide the strength of the unit.
J.T. Surratt is a proven commodity at defensive tackle, but he's surrounded by largely unproven players.
Guys like Darius English and the two Gerald Dixons have gotten solid reviews this offseason, but the offseason is, inherently, a time for coaching optimism. It's not often that young players get scathing reviews. We have to see it in a game before believing it.
The secondary poses even bigger questions than the line. Especially now that converted running back Jamari Smith, who at the very least would have been part of the cornerback rotation, is out for the year with a foot injury, the depth chart is loaded with freshmen.
Starting safety Brison Williams made the move to cornerback this fall and will likely man one spot. Opposite him, the lowest-ranked of South Carolina's four incoming freshman cornerbacks, Al Harris Jr., has been the most impressive young defensive back in camp. Expect him to win the other starting job.
But that doesn't mean other true freshmen such as Chris Lammons and Wesley Green will be buried in the background. They won't be. All of those youngsters will be forced into action, as will second-year players Rico McWilliams and Ali Groves.
From the scheme to the personnel, this unit has far more questions than it did last year. Can it be equally successful? Sure. But should South Carolina fans bank on it? Probably not. Especially in early games against Texas A&M and Georgia, the offense will need to score, and score a lot. The growing pains will be real.
By the end of the season, though, this group could be playing quite well. With so much youth on the roster, 2015 could be even better.
|Player||Injury Type||Length of Injury|
|CB Jamari Smith||Broken Foot||Out for Season|
|OG Mike Matulis||Sprained Knee||Indefinite|
|OT Donnell Stanley||Broken Wrist||6-8 Weeks|
|DE Devin Washington||Hamstring||Unknown|
|RB Mike Davis||Ribs||Probable for Week 1|
The biggest and most recent injury scare of South Carolina's preseason was cleared up with a tweet Thursday afternoon.
Davis had missed a good portion of camp with a ribs injury, and with rumors swirling that he might sit out the Week 1 game against Texas A&M, the running back took it upon himself to inform us otherwise:
Y'all really think I'm going to miss the first game ? 😂😂😂 ok— IG Mike28Davis (@Mike28davis) August 21, 2014
Probably the most confusing injury on the depth chart right now is that of Mike Matulis, the former Freshman All-American who had recovered from injuries to both of his shoulders and forced his way back into the starting lineup at right guard.
Matulis is suffering from a knee sprain that at first made it seem like his season (and perhaps career) would be over. Instead, as reported by Matt Connelly of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal he is expected (or at least hoped) to be available around midseason.
In his stead, look for Will Sport to slide into the starting lineup.
Smith's injury—as discussed earlier and in the following section—thins the ranks at cornerback and makes the young secondary pieces more vital. Donell Stanley is having wrist surgery that won't keep him sidelined all season but will probably result in a redshirt nonetheless (he is, after all, a third-stringer), and Devin Washington, who redshirted last year with a concussion, now has a hamstring problem, although it is unclear at the time how severe that injury is.
X-Factor(s): The Freshman Cornerbacks
In 2013, the SEC had a breakout group of true freshman cornerbacks.
Vernon Hargreaves III at Florida and Tre'Davious White at LSU played at an All-SEC level, and others such as Cameron Sutton at Tennessee and Shaq Wiggins at Georgia were quality, reliable starters.
South Carolina desperately needs for that be a rule and not an exception. It signed four cornerbacks in the 2014 class, three of whom (Green, Lammons and D.J. Smith) ranked in the top 20 at the position and one of whom (Harris Jr.) is projected to start in Week 1.
It's a bit of a copout to name more than one player in the X-factor section, but the truth is that South Carolina doesn't care which freshman cornerbacks emerge as viable players; it only cares that at least one or two of them do.
Harris Jr. has been one of the stars of fall camp and is the name to watch right now, and his NFL bloodlines—his father, Al Sr., was a Pro Bowler as recently as 2008—provide an odd feeling of comfort (specious as it may be). But Green, Lammons and Smith were all ranked higher than Harris as recruits for a reason, and they will be counted on to play early and often and justify their pedigrees.
The SEC will not be the pass-happy juggernaut it was last season, but there are enough good quarterbacks and receivers to punish South Carolina for trotting out a below-average secondary.
These freshmen are its only chance of not doing that.
|Thursday, Aug. 28||vs. Texas A&M||Columbia, S.C.|
|Saturday, Sept. 6||vs. East Carolina||Columbia, S.C.|
|Saturday, Sept. 13||vs. Georgia||Columbia, S.C.|
|Saturday, Sept. 20||at Vanderbilt||Nashville, Tenn.|
|Saturday, Sept. 27||vs. Missouri||Columbia, S.C.|
|Saturday, Oct. 4||at Kentucky||Lexington, Ky.|
|Saturday, Oct. 11||BYE||WEEK|
|Saturday, Oct. 18||vs. Furman||Columbia, S.C.|
|Saturday, Oct. 25||at Auburn||Auburn, Ala.|
|Saturday, Nov. 1||vs. Tennessee||Columbia, S.C.|
|Saturday, Nov. 8||BYE||WEEK|
|Saturday, Nov. 15||at Florida||Gainesville, Fla.|
|Saturday, Nov. 22||vs. South Alabama||Columbia, S.C.|
|Saturday, Nov. 29||at Clemson||Clemson, S.C.|
The first three games of the season are huge. Massive. South Carolina almost has to start 3-0 to stand a realistic chance of making the College Football Playoff. Even at 2-1, the waters begin to get rough.
Georgia is the most pivotal game of that triad, the winner getting a leg up on the other presumptive favorite in the East. Forfeiting the tiebreaker on its home field is not something this team can afford to do, especially in early September.
But beating Texas A&M to start the season is almost as important—especially if you subscribe to the theory of the Aggies taking a big step back this season. Their schedule is littered with difficult games in the SEC West, and suffering a home loss to a team that finishes, say, 8-4, would be crippling to South Carolina's resume.
Needless to say, so would losing to East Carolina from the AAC. But the Pirates are talented and scrappy and will put up a good fight.
If the Gamecocks do begin 3-0, however, things start to get easier. A 2-1 split against Missouri, Auburn and Florida would probably get them into the SEC Championship Game. And even if they lose at Clemson in the last week of the regular season, it's hard to imagine the winner of the country's top conference not making the CFP.
Even with two losses, they would be one win away.
Oddly enough, my prediction corresponds with the scenario drawn out in the make-or-break section.
I think South Carolina can hang 40-plus points on Texas A&M in Week 1. I think it will come out ready to play against East Carolina in Week 2. I think a big game from Thompson (and Williams-Brice Stadium) propels it to a close win over Georgia in Week 3.
It will lose its only SEC game at Auburn—a team whose offensive line might expose the thin defensive front—and eke out a hard-fought win at Florida to clinch the division November 15.
However—and I know this will be a wildly unpopular opinion—I think that is where the season hits its apex. Clemson's defense is not to be trifled with, and with just as much potentially at stake, I think this is the year it finally gets the Gamecocks on its home-field, snapping a five-game losing streak in the rivalry.
Add to that a loss against my predicted national champion, Alabama, in the SEC title game and a win in whatever bowl they make, and you have yourself another 11-win season. But at least they would have gotten over one hurdle by winning the SEC East.
Perhaps next year is the one when they clear that other pesky hurdle and win more than 11 games. Thompson will be gone, but all of the young talent on the current depth chart (especially on defense) will be one year older and poised for a monster season.
That feels like it's more likely their year.
Overall Record: 11-3
SEC Record: 7-1
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT