It's been quite a ride in 2011 for the South Carolina Gamecocks.
Head coach Steve Spurrier and his football team have themselves in prime position to capture another SEC East title, but the road thus far hasn't been smooth for the Gamecocks.
There have been some inconsistencies on offense, a quarterback change from Stephen Garcia to Connor Shaw and then the dismissal of Stephen Garcia. The Gamecocks have also suffered the injury bug in the first half of the season with injuries to Marcus Lattimore, Shon Carson and Matt Coffee, ending their seasons. Other players such as Kenny Miles, Eric Baker, D.L.Moore, Kyle Nunn and Jason Barnes have all missed time due to injuries as well.
The defense struggled in its first two games against East Carolina and Georgia, but have played up to their potential ever since. Freshman Jadeveon Clowney has lived up to the hype, and Melvin Ingram and Antonio Allen have pushed their way into the All-American talk with their performances so far in 2011.
Let's take a look at the report card grades for offense, defense, special teams, coaching and an overall grade for South Carolina through the first half of the season.
South Carolina's offense has been a lot of Marcus Lattimore and a little of everything else in the first half of the 2011 season.
The offensive production hasn't been what the Gamecocks thought it would be with returning talent like Alshon Jeffery, Stephen Garcia and Lattimore.
You can blame that on the struggles of Garcia and the offensive line.
Lattimore, before his season-ending injury against Mississippi State, was at the top of the SEC's statistical categories for his performances through the first half of the season. He was second in rushing yards in the SEC, second in all-purpose yards, second in scoring and second in total touchdowns. He carried the Gamecocks to wins early in the season against East Carolina, Georgia and Navy, and was the stalwart of this offense.
The passing game struggled under Garcia, as he threw nine interceptions to only four touchdowns. His accuracy was off each game, and the decision-making wasn't there for the fifth-year senior quarterback.
Insert Connor Shaw, and the difference was seen immediately. The offense picked up in the sophomore's second career start against Kentucky, and he showed he can handle this offense for South Carolina.
Jeffery has made some big plays for the Gamecocks, and is fourth in receiving yards in the SEC and tied for second in the conference in receiving touchdowns. He's a big-play threat and always draws attention from opposing defenses. He was quiet for a few games due to the struggling passing game, but has come back to life the last three games with some important catches for South Carolina.
Surprise contributions from players like Bruce Ellington and Nick Jones in the first half give the offense hope of playing much better in the second half.
You can see the talent is there. They played great at times, and then they've struggled at times. If the offense had any rhythm at all against Auburn, we'd be looking at an undefeated South Carolina football team.
Now they'll have to find a way to overcome the loss of Lattimore. It will be tough, but there's hope.
The up-and-down nature of the offense's performance is why they are given a "C" average for the first half of the season.
The Gamecocks' defense has really turned the corner these last few weeks and find themselves ranked among the nation's best defenses.
South Carolina's defense is leading the nation in takeaways right now with 24. The Gamecocks have14 interceptions at this moment, placing them in a tie for second place nationally with Rutgers. Turnovers have been a big part of the success for South Carolina this year, and they've really excelled at maximizing their opportunities.
They also have pushed their way into the Top 10 of the NCAA standings in total defense, coming in at No. 9 with an average of 277.5 yards allowed per game.
Melvin Ingram has been phenomenal for the Gamecocks. Ingram has 31 total tackles with 5.5 sacks, two interceptions and one fumble recovery. He's scored three touchdowns for the Gamecocks and has caused havoc in the backfield of his opponents.
Another Gamecock who has been outstanding this year is Antonio Allen.
Allen leads the team in tackles with 60 total tackles. He also has three interceptions and has scored two touchdowns as well. He's great in run support, fantastic in pass coverage and Allen is a guy who makes plays like Ingram. Allen has been a key part of the defense's success in the first half.
The Gamecocks' defense is second in the SEC in sacks with 14 on the season. A big part of that reason is the emergence of Jadeveon Clowney. He's second on the team in sacks with four and has caused four fumbles.
The defensive line combination of Ingram, Travian Robertson, Clowney and Devin Taylor is one of the best in the country, and you've seen that so far this season. Add in true freshman Kelcy Quarles, and this line can get even better.
It's amazing to witness the improvement over the first half of the season for the Gamecock defense and to see where they are statistically in the SEC and the NCAA.
This is the reason why I'm giving them an "A-" for the first half of the season. Just imagine if they played like this against East Carolina and Georgia...
South Carolina brought in a new special teams coach this year in John Butler after Shane Beamer left for a position with Virginia Tech.
The dividends paid off immediately for the Gamecocks in their first game against East Carolina.
Ace Sanders took back a punt return for a touchdown from 68 yards out for the Gamecocks' first special teams score in Steve Spurrier's tenure at South Carolina. The following week, Melvin Ingram scored a touchdown on a fake punt run for 68 yards that gave the Gamecocks the boost they needed to overcome the Georgia Bulldogs.
The Gamecocks had to replace the solid Spencer Lanning at place kicker and punter in 2011, but they've found two guys who have done a good job so far.
Jay Wooten has taken over as the field goal kicker and kickoff specialist, and he's gone 4-of-6 from field goals, connecting on distances all between 40-49 yards. His kickoffs average 63.2 yards per kickoff.
All in all, he's been a nice surprise for the Gamecocks.
The punting job belongs to Joey Scribner-Howard. He's punted the ball 31 times for an average of 40.5 yards per return. Scribner-Howard has a strong enough leg to get a hold of a punt and has been fairly accurate for USC with six punts landing inside the 20-yard line.
A big area of improvement is the punt and kickoff coverage for the Gamecocks. They do a much better job of getting downfield and finding the open lanes to the opposing returner. The person who stood out the most here in the first half was Marty Markett. He always seems to be in the right place at the right time for the Gamecocks.
One area that needs more work is the return game for the Gamecocks. Other than Ace Sanders' punt return, it's been pretty bland in the punt return area. It's mainly been one fair catch after another, so the hope is they can utilize Sanders and his speed in the second half of the season.
Kickoff returns could also use some help. Bruce Ellington has been the main player there, but with his expanding role on offense, it may be time to get speedster Damiere Byrd involved. There haven't been many holes or big returns in this area for South Carolina, and it's one that needs more work to give the offense a shorter field to work with.
The Gamecocks have done some good things in the first half on special teams, but they can get better. This is why they get a "C+" average for the first half of the season.
The play-calling for South Carolina has given Gamecock fans a lot of head-scratching moments so far this season.
Head coach Steve Spurrier hasn't been the most consistent guy with his game plans, and it's shown from the offense's performance in the first half. At times he wants to throw the football and then, all of a sudden, he wants to run the football. There wasn't much of the balance that we saw in 2010.
Spurrier seemed to be conservative in his play-calling the first half of the season until he made the switch from Stephen Garcia to Connor Shaw against Kentucky. The offense found new life when Spurrier utilized the wildcat formation, the Emory and Henry formation with a new twist, and a newfound aerial attack that had been missing all season long.
We all know how poorly Garcia played in the first half. Perhaps that was the main reason for coach Spurrier's timid approach, but maybe he was calling the right plays, and they weren't executed by his players.
However, he's the head coach. If something isn't working, he needs to make an adjustment.
Spurrier finally did that against Kentucky, and the offense showed signs of improvement. A change earlier in the season could have been what this offense needed, but as long as they were winning, Spurrier wouldn't mess with that formula.
I will say that Ellis Johnson and the defensive staff made wonderful adjustments after the Georgia game to get this defense in line with what they were hyped up to be in the preseason. South Carolina struggled in run and pass-defense, but ever since Week 2 they've been able to shut down their opponents and always keep them in games.
They say defense wins championships and South Carolina has a championship-level defense. Coaching put them in this position, so they deserve credit for that.
Maybe if the offense had made strides like the defense, then the grade for the coaching would be much higher for the Gamecocks.
At the end of the day, South Carolina is currently 6-1 and 4-1 in the SEC. They were a few plays away from defeating Auburn and being 7-0 and 5-0 in the SEC.
The opportunity for the SEC East title is controlled by one team: South Carolina.
If the Gamecocks can win out, then they head back to Atlanta. I'd say that's where they hoped to be after the first part of the season.
One big thing for South Carolina's success was the way they found a way to win when things weren't working. Defense and special teams helped out in the first few games for the Gamecocks. Marcus Lattimore carried South Carolina to wins in a few others. All the parts of this team contributed at certain points to the Gamecocks' start for the first half of the season.
It's not out of the question for this team to play much better in the second half than it did in the first. The defense can continue to improve each week, and this offense has yet to play a perfect game.
Sure, they lost Lattimore for the season, and he's a big reason they are where they are today. You have to remember, though, that even with Lattimore this offense looked lost at times. Turnovers can kill a football team, and the offense shot themselves down with several untimely turnovers in the first half of the year. It's hard to play better if they aren't on the field.
This is why it's important for Connor Shaw to continue to develop into an all-around quarterback. He's got the talent and smarts to play this position, and he'll need to make the right decisions if this offense expects to get better in the second half. Shaw has plenty of receivers, and the emergence of Bruce Ellington could help replace some of the production lost from Lattimore's injury.
Overall, it's been an above-average year for the Gamecocks. The defense has been great and should continue to play well in the second half of the season. The potential for the offense, special teams and coaching can be much more improved in the second half.
It all depends on how this team responds to the loss of Lattimore. If they come together and play as a team, then they can be better in the second half.
The Gamecocks have a chance at the SEC East. After what has happened in the first half of the season that's all they could ask for—right?