Along with Vanderbilt, the South Carolina Gamecocks are the only SEC team to never have won, or play in a SEC championship. Their last two coaches, Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier, are legends who won national titles at Notre Dame and Florida, respectively.
Both legends have had success. Holtz led the Gamecocks to two AP Top 20 rankings and a pair of Outback Bowl wins. In his first season, Spurrier led USC to a second place finish in the East, and they have made four bowls and not had a losing season during his tenure.
However, the hiring of Spurrier and a multi-million dollar deal with Under Armour was for one reason: to win a SEC title and bring glory to a downtrodden program. A 35-28 record in five years isn't bad, but Spurrier has won a conference championship everywhere else he's coached, even at basketball crazy Duke.
This could be SC's year. They have experience at quarterback; return 21 starters; Steve Spurrier is calling the plays; the SEC East is down; and they have stars on defense. This all boils down to a potential division championship for the down and out 'Cocks.
Experience at quarterback
In my opinion, Stephen Garcia is the best quarterback in the SEC East. John Brantley hasn't played against the tougher SEC teams, and the other East squads are breaking in new signal callers. He has been the starter for one and a half seasons and threw for over 2,800 yards and 17 touchdowns last year.
He can really move the ball through the air, torching Georgia, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, and Arkansas for 300+ yards last year. Garcia has begun to make less mistakes, having only one multi-interception game (2) against SEC East champ Florida. With the return of his favorite targets, 2nd team All SEC Alshon Jeffery (763 yards), Tori Gurley (440 yards), and tight end Weslye Saunders (3 TD), Garcia will be USC's biggest asset on offense.
21 Returning Starters
Returning starters aren't necessarily a measure of success for a season. For example, Florida Atlantic in 2006 returned a whopping 20 starters, but they only went 5-7 in the weak Sun Belt. But these returning starters are legit, coming from four straight Rivals.com top 25 classes and appearing in back to back bowl games.
Among the returners are USC's leading passer (Garcia), rusher (Kenny Miles, 640 yards), three of their top four pass catchers, and four starting offensive linemen. On defense, four of the top five tacklers return including leader Shaq Wilson (85 tackles). The secondary returns four starters including nationalchamps.net All-SEC Chris Culliver.
Steve Spurrier's Playcalling
Garcia and the rest of the Gamecocks' offense is in for a treat. Steve Spurrier has been calling plays since he won the Heisman back in 1966. He invented the Fun n' Gun passing system that shifted play-making responsibility to the quarterback and ended the ground pounding offenses made famous by Bear Bryant at Alabama and Vince Dooley at Georgia.
His offenses at Florida scored at least 500 points four straight years (1993-1996), and NFL washout Danny Wuerffel won a Heisman in his system. USC only finished 82nd in the country in total offense, but Spurrier with a wealth of play-makers will end the days of anemic Gamecock offenses. The offensive line is more seasoned, and Garcia isn't afraid to make mistakes to win football games.
The Weakness of the SEC East
Last season, Florida flat out dominated the East, running the table in conference play. But the Gators have to replace 10 starters, including five NFL early entries. Brantley has shown promise in spot duty, four offensive line starters return and there are play-makers like Ahmad Black and AJ Jones on defense, but you cannot replace a Tim Tebow or Brandon Spikes in one season, especially without Louis Murphy, Percy Harvin, and Riley Cooper.
Last year's runner up, Tennessee, have gone through a coaching change and lost their quarterback (Jon Crompton), tailback (Montario Hardesty), entire offensive line, and the heart and soul of their defense (Eric Berry). Georgia is also going through changes and is only a marginal top 25 team after losing seven starters on defense including All-SEC nose tackle Jeff Owens.
With all this attrition in the SEC East, the Gamecocks are due for a move up in the standings.
Stars on Defense
This season South Carolina must go up against two of the most potent offenses in the SEC: Alabama's smash mouth run game featuring Heisman winner Mark Ingram and five star recruit Trent Richardson, and the powerful vertical passing game of Ryan Mallett of Arkansas. They must beat one of these teams to claim the SEC East, and their "stars" on defense must shine.
Chris Culliver is a last line of defense corner (62 tackles), named to the 2nd team All-SEC along with first teamer Stephen Gilmore (one interception). Together they can be on an island with any two receivers in the SEC, which is the perfect antidote for Mallett, DJ Williams, and the Razorbacks.
To stop the run game of Alabama, USC counters with Shaq Wilson, an undersized (5'10"), but powerful (85 tackles) middle linebacker. He is joined by 1st team All-SEC and pass rushing machine Cliff Matthews (seven sacks), who will take on more of a run stopping role with the loss of Eric Norwood. With these standouts, South Carolina can finally hold its own with other tough SEC defenses at Florida, Alabama, and LSU.
Florida is still my pick to win the SEC East, but will Garnet and White steal the show. Please comment!