Early on, the South Carolina Gamecocks were the trendy pick to win the SEC East.
However, after the loss at Auburn, much of that fanfare slowed to a trickle. Here we examine the three major components to whether or not they can win the SEC East: the team, the competition and the schedule.
Even before Ace Sanders and Marcus Lattimore signed letters of intent to play in Columbia, SC, most pundits figured this to be Steve Spurrier's best overall team he's had at South Carolina.
Stephen Garcia was supposed to mature into a consistently good SEC QB, and the offensive line was experienced. The WR corps, led by Alshon Jeffery, is unmatched in size and athleticism, and the defense was full of experienced impact players, especially in the secondary.
Some of this has panned out, but some aspects of the team have disappointed.
The defensive line has played well. Most of the big runs the defense gave up against Auburn were on plays that the linebackers or spur were supposed to stop.
The linebackers have played average. They make most of the plays they should, outside of being "out athletic'ed" by Cam Newton.
The secondary has played poorly. In what was supposed to be the strength of the team, the secondary has not really made any plays, hasn't helped in the run, and has allowed several big plays.
This all despite the fact that they have not played a premier passing team.
Alshon Jeffery has exceeded even the loftiest of expectations thus far, proving to be a consistent possession receiver, a deep threat, and a team leader. The rest of the receivers have played well, though nothing has particularly stood out.
Stephen Garcia has been up and down. In parts of the Southern Miss and Auburn games, he played at a near all-SEC type level. However, he has still shown a proclivity for putting himself in danger and taking huge hits.
In the Auburn game, I truly believe that a primary reason Spurrier took him out wasn't lack of performance, but fear of concussion. Garcia took several huge hits because he takes on tacklers with his head down.
Physically, he has all the tools, and his decision making has improved. But he needs to play with an eye to his safety if he is truly going to lead this team to heights it has yet to achieve.
The offensive line has been mediocre. They dominated an undermanned UGA defensive line, but that has turned to be nothing to hang your hat on. They played relatively poorly against Auburn, giving Lattimore and company few holes to run through even though Auburn's defense was mostly keyed on the pass.
Marcus Lattimore has played well, though again he may have gotten too much hype from a performance against UGA that has lost its value faster than a Jeff Francouer rookie card.
He's still a quality back, but he's not a Barry Sanders-type back that can get his yards regardless of the offensive line. He needs the offensive line to consistently open holes, so he can get to the linebacker and secondary levels, where he's a beast to tackle.
The special teams have been very good.
All in all, I'd say the team has underperformed thus far. The major keys are better play in the secondary and offensive line, as most of the problems on offense and defense seem to stem from those issues.
The good news is those units don't lack for talent, and could conceivably see drastic improvement throughout the year. Also good news is that, despite underperforming in key areas, the team finds itself with just one loss, on the road to an excellent Auburn team.
When most pundits were labeling South Carolina a favorite to win the SEC East, this was the principal reason why. There is no way around the fact that the SEC East is significantly down this year.
Tennessee and Georgia look to be bordering on awful. Florida looks to be a good team, though not the juggernaut it was under Tim Tebow's leadership and is struggling to find an offensive identity.
Kentucky has some good/great players, but lacks the across-the-board depth it takes to win big in the SEC, and Vandy is Vandy.
That being said, the division still runs through Gainesville. The Gators are the second-most talented team in the SEC after Alabama, are probably the second-best coached team in the SEC behind Alabama and has, as we'll see later, a favorable schedule.
If Florida can continue to win the games they should, they will likely find themselves in a familiar position—representing the SEC East in Atlanta.
Last week's loss at Alabama only showed that Florida is really not ready to compete on the road against Alabama. But honestly, what collegiate team is?
Florida has an excellent defense that creates turnovers faster than 50 grandmas getting ready for a church bake sale. Their principal problem is a talented QB who is gaining experience and a talented offensive line that hasn't "gelled."
Those are problems that should, and likely will, fix themselves as the season wears on.
The largest obstacle to South Carolina's path to Atlanta is likely a tough conference schedule.
South Carolina was unfortunate in that its West opponents may very well be the three best teams in the entire conference: Alabama, Arkansas, and Auburn.
Florida had their schedule set up perfectly for the type of year they're having.
This year, The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party is considered an away game for Florida, essentially giving them one less true road game. Their only true road conference games are Tennessee, Vandy, and Alabama.
This is actually perfect. Florida sacrifices a game at Alabama that they'd probably have lost even if it was at The Swamp.
They get a dramatically down Tennessee team and Vandy as "road games that matter." Florida's three most significant games (South Carolina, LSU, and Kentucky) are all played at The Swamp this year.
South Carolina, on the other hand, has had to play at Auburn, at Florida, and at Kentucky. South Carolina also must hold serve at home against perhaps the two best teams in the SEC: Arkansas and Alabama.
Looking at these comparisons, Florida's schedule, even though they're in the same division in the same conference, is substantially easier. Add that to the fact that the most significant game of the year, South Carolina-Florida, will be played towards the end of the year when perhaps Florida has it's offensive identity figured out, and I think you have to give the schedule advantage squarely to Florida.
In the end, it will likely come down to Florida and South Carolina, which in and of itself is a remarkable achievement at South Carolina.
However, if Spurrier wants to get the Gamecocks to the top of the conference during his tenure in Columbia, this is an important year. South Carolina should aim for higher than second in the East.
South Carolina and Florida both have one loss right now, and Florida will likely be favored in every game they play for the rest of the year. South Carolina, on the other hand, will likely be underdogs against Alabama, Arkansas, and Florida.
In order to win the East, South Carolina must either win against Alabama or Arkansas in Columbia and beat Florida, or hope Florida slips up against an opponent they should beat.
Whether this counts as a "golden opportunity" is up for debate, and probably depends on how much you think Florida will improve throughout the year. In the end, I'd say the SEC East still runs through Gainesville, but South Carolina has a puncher's chance at getting to Atlanta.
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