South Carolina Football: Gamecocks Can Win SEC East Without Marcus Lattimore

Michael WillhoftContributor IIIApril 5, 2017

South Carolina Football: Gamecocks Can Win SEC East Without Marcus Lattimore

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    "Our worst fears have been realized." No, I'm not quoting broadcaster Jim McKay from the 1972 Munich Olympics.

    Those are the words of South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier regarding the season-ending knee injury suffered by running back Marcus Lattimore.

    Pretty strong words from the Ol' Ball Coach.

    The Gamecocks lost more than a chance to bring the Heisman Trophy to Columbia. Their chances at winning the SEC East took a severe hit when Lattimore when down.  But as bleak as things look, the team has nowhere to go but forward. The SEC East division title is still within reach for the men in garnett and black.

    Let's look at the facts. South Carolina is leading their division, they have talent on both sides of the ball, and they still have an outside chance at back-dooring their way into the BCS National Championship game.

    An injury to a star player should never be taken lightly, but the absence of Lattimore for the rest of the season doesn't necessarily end South Carolina's hopes of winning their division.

    Granted, he was the workhorse for this team; his performance during the first part of the season is the main reason that the Gamecocks were able to pull off tough wins, especially against Georgia and Navy.

    Now, the rest of the team will have to collectively raise its level of play after losing him. Here's why South Carolina can still win the SEC East without Marcus Lattimore...

The Standings

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    The South Carolina Gamecocks are currently the SEC East division leaders with a 4-1 conference record (6-1 overall). They also hold the tiebreaker over the Georgia Bulldogs since they beat Georgia in Athens during Week 2. In short, South Carolina controls its own fate.

    This is exactly the position a team wants to find itself in as the standings start to shake themselves out.

    South Carolina knew going into the season that by beating Georgia early, they would have a great chance at winning the division.

    And considering the level of play from the rest of the teams in the SEC East, the Gamecocks were right. No team in the division (besides Georgia) has fewer than three conference losses at this point.

    It's a "win and in" scenario for South Carolina as they head into the latter portion of their conference schedule. By winning their last three games against SEC opponents (Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida), the Gamecocks will earn a berth in the SEC Championship game by virtue of their finish atop the SEC East.

The Schedule

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    South Carolina has one tough conference game remaining on its schedule: at Arkansas on Nov 5. The Razorbacks have shown that they're capable of putting points on the board, which is why they'll pose the biggest threat to South Carolina's chances of winning the division.

    Yes, you can argue that every game against an SEC opponent is a "tough" game by definition. After all, it's the best college football conference in the country (regardless of what the BCS computers say—seriously, the Big 12 as America's best conference? Doubtful.)

    Besides the game at Arkansas, the Gamecocks still have to play on the road at Tennessee and at home against Florida. Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, TN is a difficult environment to play in and the Florida Gators seem to be a wild card team this season, but it's the Arkansas Razorbacks that will truly test South Carolina as the Gamecocks wrap up SEC play.

    Even though Arkansas struggled to beat Mississippi last week, there's no reason for South Carolina to take them lightly.

    I can guarantee that for all the "we're-taking-this-one-game-at-a-time" talk that's so prevalent among coaches and players, it's the Arkansas game that's circled on the calendar for the Gamecocks. They know as well as we do that it'll be the litmus test for their divisional title hopes.

    If South Carolina can pull off the upset against Arkansas in a few weeks, the SEC East title is theirs for the taking.

Connor Shaw to Alshon Jeffery

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    The passing attack will almost certainly be the focal point of any offensive game plan for South Carolina going forward. And that means opposing teams will be seeing a lot more of Alshon Jeffery.

    That sound you just heard was Connor Shaw jumping up and down for joy.

    It's every quarterback's dream to be able to throw jump-balls to big wide receivers when they know that their receiver will always make the play. Shaw should have no problem airing it out in Jeffery's direction.

    At 6'4" and 229 pounds, Jeffery wins the matchup battle against any cornerback or safety assigned to cover him. He's so big that he even wins matchups against two defensive backs when he's double covered.

    When you throw in his leaping ability and strong hands, Jeffery is every bit the prototypical NFL receiver he's been projected to be. And if you think Jeffery isn't looking at increased targets as opportunities to increase his draft stock, you're fooling yourself.

    "Shaw with a five-step drop, looking downfield...throws it DEEP, he's got Jeffery streaking down the sideline...Jeffery pulls it down! TOUCHDOWN SOUTH CAROLINA!"

    Get used to hearing that, or some variation thereof. South Carolina winning the SEC East now rests on the collective shoulders of Shaw and Jeffery, which is what fans of the vertical passing game have been waiting to hear all season.

    I think the quarterback and wide receiver are up to the challenge.

Melvin Ingram, Stephon Gilmore and Jadeveon Clowney

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    It seems like forever ago that the South Carolina defense was one of the nation's most opportunistic.

    I think we're due for a return to that style of play from the big name players on the defensive side of the ball. Lattimore's injury puts more pressure on the defense to perform; defensive stars Melvin Ingram, Stephon Gilmore and Jadeveon Clowney need to show that they still have the fire they showed at the outset of the season.

    Ingram is having the best collegiate season of his career: 31 total tackles, 5.5 sacks, two interceptions and one touchdown (on a 68-yard run, no less). Clowney (mostly a pass-rush specialist playing on third down) has 22 total tackles, four sacks and a forced fumble as a true freshman.

    Gilmore has quietly been a shutdown cornerback this season, notching 29 total tackles and two interceptions.

    Most college football teams would be happy to have just one of these guys on their team; South Carolina puts all three on the field at once.

    Now that Marcus Lattimore is done for the year, it'll be more difficult for the South Carolina offense to control the clock with the running game. The defense will likely see more of the field in the remaining games as a result. With this type of talent on defense, the Gamecocks should be up to the challenge of having to stop opposing teams more often.

    As the saying goes, defense wins championships. The Gamecocks will certainly take that to heart as they head down the stretch.

Steve Spurrier

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    While the players on the field ultimately decide the outcome of the games, the head coach has a major impact; this is especially true in college football.

    Say what you want about Steve Spurrier, but he's not called the Ol' Ball Coach for nothing. The man was put on this earth for one reason: to win college football games as a head coach.

    Coaching college football is a very specialized skill, one that doesn't necessarily translate to coaching an NFL team (Spurrier can attest to that).

    Spurrier, however, has enjoyed immense success as a college football head coach. He's been named ACC Coach of the Year twice (1988 and 1989) and SEC Coach of the Year seven times (1990, 1991, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2005 and 2010).

    Most important to South Carolina fans though is the SEC East division championship he won as the Gamecocks' head coach last year.

    There's no reason to think that the Ol' Ball Coach doesn't have the experience and knowledge necessary to lead this year's edition of South Carolina to an east divisional title as well.

Motivation

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    I said it in the open and I'll say it again: the South Carolina Gamecocks have an outside chance at playing for the BCS National Championship. Is there any better motivation for a team trying to win games?

    The SEC East division title is just the beginning of what this team could accomplish.

    We all know that the winner of the SEC will get a bid to the BCS title game; if South Carolina wins the SEC East and gets lucky against Alabama or Louisiana State in the SEC Championship game (basically a one-game playoff for a chance at the BCS), they'll move on to the BCS Championship.

    Remember, they don't have to beat out Bama or LSU en route to the conference title game since they play in separate divisions. The road to the SEC title game for an eastern division team is much easier, which is why South Carolina still has a shot at the national championship.

    I'm sure the coaching staff is using the SEC East division title as motivation for postseason games.

    If South Carolina wasn't sufficiently motivated to win the division already, the thought of possibly getting to the BCS title game as a one-loss SEC team should be the spark they need to perform well over the next few weeks.