When the top 25 polls were released, they contained a few surprises. One that wasn't a surprise, however, was the omission of South Carolina.
A mediocre season coupled with an embarrassing bowl loss doesn't usually equal preseason love.
The Gamecocks lost Eric Norwood and Clifton Geathers—two big hits on the defensive side of the ball—but the returning talent is a glimmer of hope for Gamecocks fans, not to mention the incoming recruiting class.
Marcus Lattimore is one of the biggest, if not the biggest recruit in school history and can be Mr. Everything just as he was Mr. Football South Carolina. As previously stated though, these things don't often equal preseason respect in the polls—especially for the historically underachieving South Carolina.
The Gamecocks also don't have an easy road ahead of them—Georgia and Alabama early and Florida and Clemson on the road late—which is nothing new for the Gamecocks. They traditionally have one of the tougher schedules in college football, though this year a few of the tough ones are home games.
That tough schedule may or may not be a factor in poll voters not giving South Carolina a coveted top-25 spot. A highly debated topic has been whether or not this is the year for Steve Spurrier to produce or hang up the visor if he doesn't. Regardless of your view on that, 2010 has to be the year in which South Carolina finally turns some heads.
Spurrier's critical comments of the team may have contributed as well. The Head Ball Coach isn't known for singing the praises of his teams, but to hear him tell it, the Gamecocks were horrible last year and don't look much better for 2010. I disagree with that, but I also don't know if Spurrier really feels that way. It could simply be motivation for the team.
2010 will be a season far from the norm for South Carolina regardless of the record. The Gamecocks have true depth now. They aren't the deepest team in the nation but have far more depth than they're used to. QB, RB, WR, LB, and DB are all positions in which the backups could shine as brightly as the men they follow on the depth chart, if not more so.
There are also names on the heavily critiqued offensive line to watch out for. True freshmen A.J. Cann and Du'Von Millsap will have an opportunity to play this season; maybe later in the year for Millsap, but Cann may play immediately or very early.
Also, new offensive line coach/run game coordinator Shawn Elliott will attempt to coach senior left side lineman Jarriel King, who at 6'5" and 310 pounds is an NFL left tackle in the making, to his true potential.
The SEC's third-ranked defense last season, behind Alabama and Florida, has the potential to be even better even with the aforementioned losses. Josh Dickerson, Qua Gilchrist, and Tony Straughter provide some depth at linebacker, while Shaq Wilson moves to Eric Norwood's spot and Rodney Paulk returns healthy to his spot in the middle.
Antonio Allen and Damario Jeffrey will compete for the Spur position, which is a hybrid linebacker/safety spot. The man who doesn't get the spot will add solid depth as well.
Chris Culliver moved to corner from safety, and Akeem Auguste moves from safety to corner in a position flip-flop between the two talented upperclassmen. Culliver is a senior who decided to stay for his final season, and Auguste is a junior who will likely find a spot on a pro roster in a year or two.
The defensive line looks strong. DE Cliff Matthews is considered by some to be NFL-ready right now, and along with plug and play DT Ladi Ajiboye they are the two returning starters. Travian Robertson is back from his knee injury, and sophomore Devin Taylor was pressed into duty due to the early departure of Geathers but seems ready. The depth isn't stellar, but it's still there.
Another spot in which the Gamecocks performed less than spectacularly in 2009 but should do much better in 2010 is takeaways. With six interceptions from the defense last season, that isn't much reason for the pollsters to be impressed. 2010 should see that at least doubled by a very solid and deep secondary. Some have speculated that Stephon Gilmore could have six alone.
Newcomer Sharrod Golightly doesn't impress with size or speed but has a knack for being around the ball and is a sure tackler as well, though he isn't likely to be a starter, but a much needed reserve.
The Gamecocks aren't a preseason top-25 team, but if they come even close to their potential in 2010, they will be before midseason, and 2011 could see the Gamecocks enter the season higher than they ever have.