South Carolina football is sitting in a prime position to repeat as SEC East champions with two SEC games remaining.
It's been an interesting brand of football for the Gamecocks as it has been mainly defense and the running game that has carried the Gamecocks for most of the 2011 season.
However they will need the passing game to show signs of life and some good health for players like Connor Shaw and Brandon Wilds if they expect to repeat as SEC East champions. Defense also needs to continue its strong play and continue to improve on third downs.
Here are a five keys for the rest of 2011 for the Gamecocks....
Brandon Wilds took his first start against the Tennessee Volunteers as a challenge and led the Gamecocks to a 14-3 victory.
Wilds finished the day with 28 carries for 137 yards, both career highs, and showed flashes of the star running back he has been charged to replace.
Everyone knows of the injury troubles plaguing the Gamecocks at the running back position. Freshman Shon Carson was lost for the season with a knee injury in the Georgia game. Backups Kenny Miles and Eric Baker have played sparingly over the course of the season due to nagging injuries. The big lost was losing Marcus Lattimore for the season against Mississippi State.
Brandon Wilds looked good in replacing Lattimore as the starter but he'll need some help behind him. You could tell the freshman got a little winded in the second half at times, so it's imperative for someone else to step up and provide that depth.
Kenny Miles is the best option at this point. He was able to finally contribute some on offense for the Gamecocks against the Volunteers and had seven carries for 15 yards. It may not be much but it's seven less carries that Brandon Wilds had to have for Carolina.
Bruce Ellington could also snag a few carries from either the running back position or the Wildcat formation, now that he's fully healthy from his hamstring injury that limited him against Tennessee.
Between these three, South Carolina should have just enough to help them get through the rest of 2011. The Gamecocks just need a second option behind Brandon Wilds to help out.
The Gamecocks starting quarterback Connor Shaw is 4-0 in his first four starts of his young career.
Granted one of those came against East Carolina where he only played a quarter of football but he has been a field general for the Gamecocks.
It's important for South Carolina to keep him on the field since they no longer have the option of turning to Stephen Garcia, who was dismissed from the team in October. Backups Dylan Thompson and Andrew Clifford are limited in experience and don't look ready to provide the same type of performance that Connor Shaw has given the Gamecocks.
How do they keep him healthy? Try to limit his run plays. Make sure to enforce the idea of sliding and getting out of bounds when an opposing player is in pursuit. Use the Wildcat formation now that Bruce Ellington is healthy and ready to go in order to limit the amount of hits Shaw could take.
Connor Shaw is a big part of the Gamecocks winning ways the last few weeks and he'll play an important role going forward.
South Carolina's defense has pushed themselves to the top nationally in several defensive categories. It's not that much of a surprise considering the talent level that was in Columbia coming in to the 2011 season.
However, if there has been one area that bothers Gamecock fans then it's got to be third-down defense. South Carolina was ninth in the conference in opponent's third-down conversions with a 40 percent conversion percentage. It seemed to be the one area of the South Carolina defense that hasn't improved as the season moved along.
There was a bit of hope for improvement though against Tennessee. The Gamecocks held the Volunteers to just two of 14 on third-down conversion attempts. Fourteen percent is a much better number than 40 percent for the Gamecocks and this, hopefully, could be a sign of improvement going forward.
South Carolina has some high-powered offenses remaining in Arkansas and Clemson and if they expect to come away with victories to close out 2011 then the defense will need to continue to improve on third downs the rest of the way.
This has been an area that has given head coach Steve Spurrier headaches his entire tenure here at South Carolina.
It could be a lack of talent evaluation, not enough depth, or the wrong coaches in place but it has caused some problems for the Gamecock offense.
The Gamecocks believe they have the right coach in place in Shawn Elliott but the depth is an issue right now for South Carolina.
Losing Kyle Nunn has turned out to be a much bigger deal than originally thought. With Nunn in the lineup, the Gamecocks had a fifth-year senior leader at the all important left tackle spot. Now that Nunn is gone, there has been some changes to the offensive line out of necessity and things just aren't as fluid as they once were.
South Carolina has been very good at creating turnovers on defense in 2011.
The Gamecocks have a total of 26 takeaways this season with 16 passes intercepted and 10 fumbles recovered. They are tied for second in the nation in interceptions and tied for 14th nationally in fumble recoveries. Opportunities like this give your offense extra chances and increase your chance of victory.
This defense will need to keep up this momentum going forward as they face Arkansas and Tyler Wilson next, who hasn't thrown an interception in 176 straight pass attempts. They also face the high-powered Clemson offense led by Tajh Boyd who has only thrown five interceptions on the year.
These two offenses will give this defense the ultimate test the rest of the season and it will be up to the Carolina defense to create turnovers and keep momentum on the Gamecocks side.