As the summer heats up in the Capital City, Steve Spurrier will soon prepare his team for preseason practice, which he hopes to be a successful 2009 football campaign. While you are waiting on the season to begin, I invite you to read the 2009 Gamecock Football Preseason OOC Guide. I will give in-depth coverage of the heart, skill, and potential of the South Carolina team in their non-league games and the strengths and weaknesses of each non-conference challenger. I will also predict the outcome of each matchup. So, grab a lemonade and a snack—this is a long slideshow!
For the first game of the season, the Gamecocks will make a September 3 journey to Raleigh for a Thursday night showdown vs. the N.C State Wolfpack. Hungry Wolfpack fans are looking for revenge on the Gamecocks, who destroyed the Pack 34-0 last season to open the 2008 season. The Wolfpack come flying into the game with lofty expectations after a four-game winning streak to close the regular season. Carolina, on the other hand, was freezing cold, coming off a three-game freefall to close another deflating season in 2008.
The Wolfpack will come into the game with great anticipation from the home fans, but the Gamecocks will also bring plenty of traveling fans. This game will help prepare the Gamecocks for SEC play. This is one of the ACC's better teams, not a cakewalk. Right? A win in this game will stake the SEC's claim as the top dog in the BCS. A win would also give USC hope versus SEC challenger Georgia. The battle will test the new blood of Spurrier's coaching staff and troops. If South Carolina comes out on the wrong end of the stick, the team's reputation and potential could be ruined.
The Pack return All-ACC QB Russell Wilson, who threw 17 TD passes for 2,955 yards last season. The redshirt sophomore only threw one interception in 2008. He injured himself in the South Carolina—N.C. State game last season. Wilson is the leader of an offense that was ranked fifth in the ACC last season. State returns three starters on the offensive line that paved the way for N.C. State's high-scoring offense last year. Look for the WR corps to be improved for the Pack this season. State returns Owen Spencer (31 receptions, 691 yards), Jarvis Williams (26 rec., 432 yds.), and T.J. Graham (16 rec., 251 yds). The Wolfpack also have plenty of strengths on the defensive side of the ball. On the defensive line, State returns playmaker senior Willie Young, who led the team with six sacks last season, along with Alan-Michael Cash, who started 10 games, and Shea McKeen, who started nine contests last fall. This unit was the reason the Wolfpack improved dramatically on defense last season. Notice that N.C. State's first eight opposing forces scorched the run defense for an average of 170.1 yards, but the final four invaders only averaged 97.6 yards on the ground.
This spring, defensive coordinator Mike Archer had to shuffle around his secondary, which only returns one senior this season, six-foot Clem Johnson. Plus, linebacker Nate Irving was severely injured in a car accident, leaving the group with only one proven player, senior MLB Ray Michel. Also, the Wolfpack running backs could develop into a problem. It will be a four-man race for playing time this fall. The projected starter is Toney Baker, who is coming around after two straight season ending knee injures. The other backs looking for playing time are senior Jamelle Eugene, (last season's starter) Brandon Barnes, and early enrollee James Washington.
Expect a great game. Both squads will be fired up in what could turn out to be a classic ACC vs. SEC matchup. N.C State is convinced that All-ACC redshirt sophomore Russell Wilson will be ready to go.
On the other side of the ball, South Carolina is hoping Stephen Garcia will be ready to lead the Gamecocks versus the Wolfpack defense. Expect Garcia to be improved from last season. This spring, he has improved his leadership skills and quarterbacks coach G.A Mangus wants him throwing "at least 100 to 120 times a day" during the summer.
South Carolina may have an edge at the running backs position. N.C. State will most likely field Toney Baker as the starter against the Gamecocks. Last season's rushing leader, Jamelle Eugene, missed time due to shoulder surgery. Besides, Eugene only had 442 net yards last season. N.C. State struggled at the position last season. Baker should compare with South Carolina's top backs at the position, but the Gamecocks will have more quality depth. It will be a three-man race for game time at USC. USC's weakness at this position in 2008 could easily turn into a strength this season. The Gamecock backs include headliner recruit Jarvis Jiles, who had 100+ yards rushing in the spring game. Eric Baker and Brian Maddox also look to improve on last season's totals. At fullback, the Gamecocks return Patrick Dimarco.
Expect lots of production from State's wideouts. The Gamecocks lost a record-breaker in Kenny McKinley, but the Gamecocks look to improve overall at the position. Jason Barnes and Moe Brown could turn out to be breakout Receivers for Carolina.
Both offensive lines will receive a great challenge from the talented defensive lines of South Carolina and N.C State. Eric Norwood will anchor the Gamecocks' defense. Secondary is a reason for concern for both schools.
Although the Wolfpack may have a more experienced team, a more talented offense and a better quarterback, the Gamecock defense is nothing like what the Pack face every week in the ACC, aside from Virginia Tech, Boston College, and Clemson. The Gamecocks could essentially squash N.C. state’s ground game. What will keep N.C. State in the game is a heavy passing attack, along with USC's young secondary. If the Gamecocks limit the turnovers on offense and balance the running and passing attack, good things will happen for the Gamecocks. The Gamecocks also must find a way for the offensive line to guard the skill position players. With new offensive line coach Eric Wolford, I expect Carolina to improve on last season's numbers. The defense must also keep order for Carolina to win.
Prediction: Gamecocks 23, Wolfpack 17
In the second matchup of the non-league slate, the University of South Carolina will face the Florida Atlantic Owls. The last time these schools faced off was on September 23 2006. Then-receiver Sidney Rice led the Gamecocks with four touchdown catches, as the Gamecocks cruised to a 45-6 victory over the Owls. This September 19 matchup will be the first home game of the season for Carolina. The Gamecocks will be coming off two brutal road trips against N.C State and Georgia. If the first two games are won, the Gamecocks could come into the game ranked in the Top 25. A 2-0 record coming into the game and a blowout win would keep the Gamecock Nation crowing all night long. It will bring energy and focus and change to Ole Miss.
A bad showing in this game will bring a negative attitude to the program. This game offers a tune-up before Ole Miss comes to town Thursday night. With a loss, you can be sure Gamecock fans will crank up firespurrier.com. A loss would be very unlikely. If the game gets out of hand in the second half for the Owls, Spurrier can experiment with young players.
Rusty Smith will return for his senior season at quarterback to lead the Owls' heavy passing attack. The 2008 Sun Belt Player of the Year has passed for over 7,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in his past two seasons. He hopes to improve on his completion percentage of 53.8, with 14 interceptions. The Owls' heavy passing attack does not stop there. FAU returns Smith's favorite target—Cortez Gent. Gent pulled down 60 receptions for nine touchdowns in 2008. Chris Bonner is another big target returning to the team. He caught 22 passes for three touchdowns last year. 2007 All-Sun Belt Jason Harmon returns at tight end after tearing his ACL in last season's spring game.
To start with, the Owls only return one starter off of last season's offensive line. They will also be looking for a tailback that can produce rushing yards like 1,000-yard rusher Charles Pierre and handy back DiIvory Edgecomb. First year Defensive Coordinator Kirk Hoza will have to do lots of experimenting with his defense. His defense only returns three starters, including DT Josh Savidge, CB Tarvious Hill, and FS Ed Alexander.
Regardless of what happens in South Carolina's first two games this season, the Gamecocks will enter this game as the heavy favorites. The Gamecocks seem to have the edge at almost every position. The Owls' inexperienced defense may improve over the course of the season, but will probably not give the USC offense very much trouble in the second game of the season.
Prediction: Gamecocks 41, Owls, 6
The Gamecocks will continue their four-game homestand when the 2008 MEAC Champion South Carolina State Bulldogs come to town. The game offers a breather from the brutal schedule Carolina is otherwise facing. The Gamecocks will be given extra time to prepare for the South Carolina State game because the Ole Miss game is on a Thursday.
This is USC's second meeting with the Bulldogs. In the first meeting, USC handily defeated S.C. State 38-3 in 2006. The Gamecocks need to get this one over early and rest players for the Kentucky game. This is the last easy non-conference game for USC this season. Expect a win from the Gamecocks.
Last year's S.C. State squad led the MEAC in offensive and defensive statistics. With an offense that averaged 382.5 yards a game and a defense that held opponents to an average of 17.0 points a game, the Bullldogs were a tough team to beat in the MEAC. Although they lost seven All-MEAC selections to graduation, S.C. State still returns many pieces that are needed for a great season in 2009. In the offensive backfield, the duo of QB Malcolm Long and Will Ford will keep the points coming. Ford totaled for 1,499 yards and 13 TDs last season. The MEAC Offensive Player of the Year will be returning for his senior season. Joining Ford in the crowded Bulldog backfield is Travil Jaminson, who rushed for 586 yards and 16 touchdowns in the 2008 campaign. S.C. State's All-MEAC defenders Markee Hamlin (Safety) and Marshall McFadden (LB) will lead the Bulldogs defensive unit in there invasion of the Gamecocks.
S.C State lost many seniors off of 2008's championship season. This will make it even harder to knock off the 'Cocks. Either way, the Bulldogs will seem to have many disadvantages. This is no surprise. USC is in the best conference in all of college football, while the Bulldogs are in the FCS.
S.C. State's offensive statistics were much more accurate than USC's last year, but the Gamecocks are in the SEC and the Bulldogs are in the MEAC. Besides these stats, the Gamecocks look to have a clear edge. Either way, the Gamecocks defense should hold the Bulldogs scoring attack.
After a conference battle against Ole Miss, the Gamecocks will have extra time to buckle down against an easier opponent. Steve Spurrier will most likely elect to rest many starters in the 2nd half for the Kentucky game. Spurrier will probably not want to beat the local black college too badly.
Prediction: Gamecocks 44, Bulldogs, 10
To close out the regular season, the USC Gamecocks will face in-state rival Clemson on Thanksgiving weekend. Carolina will be looking for revenge on the Tigers, who handed the Gamecocks a 31-14 beat down in Death Valley last season. Everybody knows the whole season is at stake here for the Gamecocks, which have lost the last eight out of 10 to the Tigers. Any season Carolina defeats Clemson is a good season in Gamecock Nation.
Not only this, but many other positive effects come into play with a beating of the Gamecocks' upstate archrival. A better bowl would be definite with a victory over Clemson. In past years, when the Gamecocks have lost to Clemson, the program has also lost recruits, money, and pride. For example, when Carolina lost to Clemson last season, many recruits probably chose Clemson over USC in the recruiting process, along with Carolina players losing hope for the bowl game, leaving many disappointed Gamecock fans staying home for the bowl game. The outcome of the game determines the balance of the Gamecock football program. Beating Clemson keeps the fans happy, increases recruit interest, renews the focus of the players, and virtually guarantees a better bowl game. Most importantly, it leaves bragging rights to the players and fans. Those are the stakes of the game.
When the Gamecocks run onto the field to the tune of 2001 with 80,000 fans at their feet, the team should be fired up to play Clemson. How the Gamecocks play down the final stretch of the season will affect the Clemson game. Last season, The Gamecocks completely fell apart during the Florida game. The losing streak spread to the Clemson and Iowa games, which turned out to be a three-game losing streak and a lost season. If the Gamecocks can win plenty of games closing in on this game, expect a better team output from Carolina. The team cannot fall apart toward the end of the schedule or the whole season will be ruined.
The Gamecocks must come into the game spirited, focused, and ready to go versus a talented Tiger team.
After a midseason dismissal of Tommy Bowden and a major housecleaning project by Dabo Swinney, the Clemson tigers are back in business. The Tigers' strengths start at running back. C.J. Spiller is now the unquestioned starter with James Davis off to the NFL. Clemson has started a Heisman campaign for the senior, who rushed for 2,335 yards and 20 touchdowns last season. Spiller will get even more playing time this season and possibly even more yards. The same front five as last year will protect him this season. Second Team All-ACC Thomas Austin, who is entering his senior season, will make his switch from center to guard this fall. Freshman All-American Mason Cloy will fill in for Austin at center. Clemson will have plenty of young targets at wide receiver. The leader of this unit is track speedster Jacoby Ford, who accounted for 55 catches, 710 receiving yards, and five touchdowns last season. He is filling in for Aaron Kelly, who was the ACC's all-time leader in receptions with 232 catches. Kelly is headed to the NFL. Clemson is also talented on defense. Chris Chancellor and Crezdon Butler lead a strong group of cornerbacks and Kavell O’Connell and Brandon Maye will lead the linebackers.
With the departure of quarterback Cullen Harper, Tigers' offensive coordinator Billy Napier will have to choose between highly-touted 2007 high school prospect Willy Korn and two-sport star Kyle Parker. Xavier Dye, Terrance Ashe, and Marquan Jones are talented and untested at wide receiver.
The Gamecocks and Tigers seem to be very even, talent-wise. The Tigers have unproven parts of the team, starting at quarterback. The Tigers play callers are untested coming into this season. I project Kyle Parker and Willy Korn's playing time battle will result with Parker having more snaps. Stephen Garcia could give the Gamecocks an edge over the Tigers at quarterback. He has had more development time than Clemson's young quarterbacks and has gotten more praise from Spurrier this offseason. As long as he keeps focus and raises his commitment level, the Gamecocks should have an edge at the position. Clemson has the obvious edge at RB with C.J Spiller, but if Spiller gets hurt, Carolina has better depth at the position. Every tailback on the Gamecocks squad has either received playing time or high praise from coaches. Clemson returns a veteran offensive line that returns everyone from last season. Clemson's offensive line vs. Carolina's defensive line will be a key matchup during this game. Gamecock followers are hoping new offensive line Coach Eric Wolford will finally whip this unit into shape. Carolina returns three starters from an unproven line. Senior center Garret Anderson anchors the line. Returning starters Terrance Campbell and Jarriel King should have the potential for a great season this year.
Another area the Gamecocks and Tigers are similar at is wide receiver. Both squads have untested talent here. Lots of Clemson's young pass catchers are in the starting rotation. Young wide receivers Xavier Dye, Terrance Ashe, and Marquan Jones have a potential for a breakout year. Jacoby Ford is the main target for the Tigers. The Gamecocks also have young skill at receiver. The 'Cocks return one starter at the position, Jason Barnes. He wears the same jersey number as former Gamecock Sidney Rice (#4) and is cut from the same cloth as he. Barnes could be the Gamecocks' star receiver as a sophomore. He and senior Moe Brown will seem to be the main pass catchers this fall. Junior Dion LeCorn looks to make up for a disappointing sophomore season. Joe Hills is another player that has much to prove this season. Don't be surprised if Tori Gurley climbs up the depth chart. The 6'5" freshman had a great spring practice. At tight end, the Gamecocks return John Mackey Trophy candidate Wesulye Saunders.
Carolina and Clemson are both loaded on the defensive side of the ball. South Carolina returns All-American candidate Eric Norwood at linebacker, along with 6'0" junior Rodney Paulk. Clemson returns Kevin O'Connell and Brandon Maye, who both started eight games or more last season. The Tigers also look pretty good on the defensive line this season with starters Kevin Alexander, Jarvis Jenkins, and Da'Quan Bowers. Not many teams will have a defensive line like the Carolina Gamecocks this season. The line includes fifth-year leader Nathan Pepper and Cliff Matthews, who is seeking All-SEC awards this season. Also returning is Clifton Geathers, who is looking to live up to his expectations this year, along with Ladi Ajobyde,who missed spring practice due to a drug charge.
Clemson should have the edge in the secondary. The Tigers return star corners Chris Chancellor and Crezdon Butler, and bring lots of experience to the table with senior free safety Sadat Chambers and junior strong safety DeAndre McDaniel. The Gamecocks bring young talent with little depth. Impact newcomer Stephon Gilmore won the starting job in just one week at Cornerback. Spurrier also plans to use him in a quarterback package. Gilmore's high school teammate DeVonte Hollman also looks to play early in the secondary. He will be the starting strong safety for USC. Spurrier is interested in using Hollman at tight end.
Other starters in the secondary include Akeem Auguste, described as a "natural" at cornerback by Lindy's SEC preview and described FS Chris Culliver as "coming into his own after the move from receiver."
After all of the explaining I have done about Clemson, I have come to this conclusion: it may not seem like it, but USC and Clemson are pretty much even in talent. In some ways, the Tigers seem to have more fire, and in some ways, the Cocks seem to have the advantages in talent. But the thing is that Carolina loses to Clemson a lot, however you put it. The Tigers have won the past eight out of 10 contests. The Gamecocks will have homefield advantage that should help them destroy the losing streak to Clemson in 2009. If Carolina is on a big losing streak headed into the game, things may turn sour for the Gamecocks. The Gamecocks must remember this is a must-win to keep balance in Gamecock Nation, but the Gamecocks have the tools to end Clemson's domination. The Gamecocks are due for a win against the Tigers.
Prediction: Gamecocks 26, Tigers, 24