Can The South Carolina Gamecocks Grow Up in Time to Compete in the SEC?

Taylor RobinsonCorrespondent ISeptember 16, 2009

ATHENS, GA - SEPTEMBER 12:  Quarterback Stephen Garcia #5 of the South Carolina Gamecocks runs the offense against the Georgia Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium on September 12, 2009 in Athens, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Few would have predicted the kind of game that took place Saturday night between the South Carolina Gamecocks and the 21st-ranked Georgia Bulldogs.

Typically, a low scoring game, Saturday night’s game ended with a final score of 41-37; with the Bulldogs narrowly escaping with victory intact.

What was, perhaps, even more surprising than the score, was who fans have to thank for such a close game.

Gamecock fans nearly got the offensive showdown that many have waited on for years. The South Carolina defense wasn’t a letdown, but they certainly weren’t impressive either. They did a good job stopping the Bulldogs once they got in the red zone, but unfortunately, they let them march down the field far too easily.

Certainly, the absence of junior defensive tackle, Ladi Ajiboye, was felt in Saturday night’s game. One of the best defensive players on the team, his suspension, is taking its toll on the Gamecocks.

I can only assume special teams received a lecture from the coaching staff regarding their performance. You just can’t give up that kind of yardage (252 yards) on kick returns and expect to win games in the SEC. Spencer Lanning did do his part to help out the Gamecocks with five completed field goals, keeping them within striking distance.

But it was the South Carolina offense that surprised people. Marching down the field time after time, the Gamecocks’ offense flowed almost naturally. Until they hit the red zone, that is. For whatever reason, the Gamecocks couldn’t seem to make it into the end zone much. They settled, instead, for just two touchdowns.

Stephen Garcia looked, for the most part, like a real quarterback against Georgia. His decision making has improved significantly. He managed to throw only one interception in 53 passes for the night, and was only sacked twice. He was selective in running the ball, and ran it well when he chose to do so. Garcia just might make this his team.

Redshirt freshman Tori Gurley showed some potential against the Bulldogs. If he could have ever caught and held onto the ball, he would have been unstoppable. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case Saturday night. He now seems to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time.

If he and Garcia could hook up on some good passes, not the under thrown passes we saw against Georgia, then this South Carolina offense might see more of the end zone.

So what exactly does Saturday night’s performance tell us about the rest of the season?

Well, for starters, my prediction about South Carolina’s record at the end of this year has improved. I initially expected only a three to five win season. My prediction now is that South Carolina will have a five to seven win season.

I still think that an eight win season for the Gamecocks would be nothing short of a miracle. However, that small optimistic part of me dares to hope.

The Gamecocks’ performance against the Bulldogs also suggests that South Carolina will be playing to the level of their opponents this season.

The team that we all saw in the match-up against NC State, was in no way the same team that showed up to the game against Georgia. A person could just chalk this up to first game jitters and young players not knowing what to expect, but I think it is more than that.

I think the Gamecocks grew up a lot after that first game, and it showed in their next match-up. Obviously, they are still a very young team with a lot more learning to do, but I expect to see a lot of growth from this team through the rest of the season.  

I also expect to see South Carolina in a lot of down-to-the-wire games this season. I think that, if nothing else, the Gamecocks showed people in the Georgia game that they weren’t going down without a fight. This leads me to believe that however hard the competition is fighting, that’s exactly how hard South Carolina will be fighting.

With all of the progress that I, and so many other fans have seen in just one week, one question still remains- can South Carolina win games in the SEC this year? Based on my prediction about the Gamecocks’ record, obviously I think they can.

I expect to see Garcia start to take more ownership of his leadership role as the season progresses. I also expect that the return of Ajiboye will bring more life back into the defense.

As a result of this, I think South Carolina improves every game, finally utilizing some of the extensive talent they have acquired over the past few years.

I think, that potentially, five of the seven wins I’ve predicted will come in the comfort of the Gamecocks’ very own Williams Brice Stadium. I believe the NC State game is one of only two road games South Carolina will win this season.

I suppose now all there is to do is wait and see what each new game brings; starting with the Gamecocks’ home opener Saturday night against Florida Atlantic.