Steve Spurrier has a few questions to answer before his team unseats the traditional "heavies" of the SEC East
A lot of positive articles have recently been published about this South Carolina team, mostly justifiably, in the wake of the 17-6 victory over Georgia. This is, without a doubt, the best team Spurrier has had since his arrival. We knew this would likely be his best team before Ace Sanders and Marcus Lattimore ever committed and their arrival and immediate impact really could make this team something special. I can't remember a South Carolina team ever being this talented at the skill positions.
That being said, I do have several questions before we go ahead and grant USC the East title and the unlikely shot of unseating Alabama as SEC Champs:
1) Is the OL really better? I know, I know, they mostly looked dominant against UGA. The Center, T.J. Johnson, in particular dominated the interior of UGA's D-Line all day. However, UGA didn't have the players to run a 3-4 defense. A 3-4 defense needs a nose tackle that requires two OL to block him and that certainly wasn't the case. As such, its hard to take away too much from the run blocking. The 3-4 isn't a good scheme to stop the run with if you have the right personnel in the first place, and its a disaster if you don't. The pass blocking was mediocre at best, though here I will cut them a little slack, because UGA does have great pass rushers and confusing schemes. I'm not ready to say the OL has turned the corner quite yet, like many people seem to want to do. It's still a question mark in my eyes until USC proves it against a SEC defense with a powerful front four. We'll get a better idea what the OL is like after the Auburn game.
2) Is Garcia ready to be a legitimate SEC QB? He's always a question it seems. Not much to say other than we just don't know yet, which isn't a feeling you want to have about the QB of a supposed contender in the strongest conference in college football. I think he was okay in the UGA game. The sacks weren't particularly his fault this time. He didn't throw an interception. Contrary to what some may think, Carolina won't win the SEC East unless Garcia is at least good. He doesn't have to be great, but he does have to be good. It would be an absolute crime if Spurrier didn't take advantage of Alshon Jeffrey and company, just because he's scared Garcia will lose the game. He has the skill set and weapons on offense to be the second best QB in the SEC this year (he's not going to touch Mallett though), but can he figure it out in key conference games?
3) Will an edge pass rusher develop into a force? Granted UGA often kept in multiple backs and tight ends to help protect Murray, but Carolina didn't even come within five yards of Murray until UGA had to pass in the 4th quarter. South Carolina CANNOT depend on blitzing to get pressure. They don't even need to necessarily sack the QB, but Ellis Johnson's unit cannot give the opposition's QB so much time that deep come-back routes can consistently develop, because those are nearly impossible to stop if the QB has the time. They need to get consistent pressure from the rush ends and they haven't really yet. Another concern was how often UGA was able to push the defensive ends on outside runs, which was the only time UGA was successful running the ball. South Carolina has two very good ends in Matthews and Devin Taylor. However, neither has become a force yet. In the SEC, legitimate contenders have at least one force at DE. Even though many thought this force would be Matthews, he strikes me as more of a second banana type guy. He is very, very good when the opponent is focused on the other DE (like they were last year with Norwood), but he will rarely beat a double team or even a very good left tackle. I actually think Devin Taylor, despite his quiet demeanor, has to emerge as the dominant force that demands a double team or a back to help block him on every passing play.
4) Can Chris Culliver successfully convert to CB from Safety? He didn't look particularly good after transitioning from safety to CB. USC has the potential for two absolute lock down corners, but I think too many took it as a given that Culliver would be a lock down corner. Hopefully Culliver is much more comfortable by the time the 'Cocks play Arkansas.
5) Can Spurrier find a balanced offensive scheme? This is weird, questioning the flow to Spurrier's play calling. However, the only reason the playcalling worked against UGA was because Todd Grantham's new scheme just couldn't stop the inside zone play, whether they knew it was coming or not. That had nothing to do with Spurrier's playcalling or brilliance. It has everything to do with UGA's line getting pushed around. If the first guy that touches Lattimore is a LB 2-3 yards in front of the line of scrimmage, the opposition has already lost, because Lattimore is getting at least 3 more yards. When Spurrier was doing anything else other than just calling Lattimore up the gut, having the center move the nose tackle, the playcalling was very disjointed. This can work against a UGA DL that was outmanned, but it is not going to work against Auburn, Florida and especially not Alabama. With essentially a week off before Auburn, I have full confidence that Spurrier will take advantage of the fact that Chizik and company will likely be keying on Lattimore and for the first time since Spurrier has been at South Carolina (the first time in his career?), he'll be catching the D off guard when he passes. But even though I have full confidence that this will be fixed, it still has to be fixed. Lattimore CANNOT run the ball 40 times per game and carry USC to the SEC championship. Give Spurrier credit for seeing what was working and that UGA couldn't stop it, but that just won't work, week in and week out, in today's SEC.
6) Can Spurrier figure out a way to get the ball to Giles in space? Lattimore is a bruiser, but Giles is a firecracker with the ball in the open field. The Ol' Ball Coach hasn't really gotten the ball to him with room to operate very much. He could be a lesser Dexter McCluster for Spurrier. He doesn't have McCluster's receiving savvy, which is what is holding him back, but he wouldn't be asked to catch balls in traffic, just swing passes and screens. Again, Lattimore can't carry the ball 40 times per game without his legs falling off. Brain Maddox taking trash carries isn't the answer, developing Giles is.
7) How will Carolina replace Saunders? I'm not necessarily talking about which player is going to replace him at TE and do all the things Saunders did, you just aren't going to replace that kind of talent. I mean schematically, how will they replace him? Garcia definitely needs a dependable safe outlet and Saunders, when he didn't have visions of sprinting down the sidelines, provided that. I actually look for passes to the backs to be a more important part of this offense (see point 6), but if Garcia is going to address his sack problem, he needs a dependable short receiver to dump the ball to. Carolina doesn't need to replace Saunder's big play ability, Ace Sanders and Tori Gurley are more than capable of making up for that, they need someone to replace all the little things, that quite frankly, Saunders didn't like doing anyway.
The good news is that these issues are mostly fixable and if they do fix them, or even most of them, they will likely be playing in Atlanta for the SEC championship in a rematch with Alabama, with a decent shot at a BCS bowl, and an outside, outside shot at playing in THE BCS bowl. But Spurrier, Ellis and company must answer these questions first.