South Carolina entered the 2014 season with high hopes not just for the SEC East title, but for the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Head coach Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks were picked to win the division at SEC Media Days last July, hosted Texas A&M on opening night with a Top 10 ranking and were set up to build upon three straight 11-win seasons.
Then Kenny Hill happened, the Gamecocks were run out of their own building and sputtered to a 7-6 record that included home losses to Missouri and Tennessee, as well as the first loss to Clemson since the month when Barack Obama was elected President...the first time.
Spurrier and Co. struggled to replace former defensive end Jadeveon Clowney—a once-in-a-generation monster whose presence made life much easier for the entire defense. It struggled to replace quarterback Connor Shaw—perhaps the best quarterback in program history.
It struggled to recapture the magic that Spurrier had when he ushered in the golden age of South Carolina football.
Was last season the anomaly or the start of a trend?
"The divide between winning and losing is extremely small and when there's so much turnover from season to season in college football," Wes Mitchell of GamecockCountry.com told Bleacher Report. "We've seen successful programs have a down year and then bounce right back the following year with a successful season. I don't think we'll truly know until 2015 if 2014 was a down season or the beginning of a downward trend, but Spurrier seems committed to making sure it's the former."
If South Carolina is going to prevent it from becoming a trend, Spurrier needs some of his veterans to grow up fast.
Inexperience up front and at the back end of the defense were the two main problems last year, and while many of those players will be back with more games under their belts, the roster as a whole looks to be following in last year's footsteps.
GoGamecocks reported on Tuesday that linebacker Marcquis Roberts is transferring from the program. Roberts finished 11th on the team with 31 tackles in 2014 and started nine games in 2013.
A huge loss? Maybe. He would have been fighting for a starting job this year, and whether he won it or not, his experience would have been invaluable for a defense that is desperately craving a leader.
Not to be outdone, Josh Kendall of The State reported on Wednesday that defensive lineman Blake McClain—who has not logged a snap for the program—is also moving on.
When compounded with what else has gone on in Columbia this offseason, though, Gamecock fans should be very concerned.
As Kendall pointed out, McClain is the 10th scholarship player to leave the Gamecocks since the end of the season. Michael Haney of 107.5 The Game noted that this move leaves inexperience littered all over the roster:
For reference, Tennessee—which was one of the youngest teams in the country last year—played 32 newcomers out of 71 players who logged at least one snap in the season opener vs. Utah State. Of those newcomers, 21 were true freshmen, according to its game notes.
The Vols' percentage of first-year players was never lower than 40 in any game during the 2014 season.
South Carolina looks like it's heading down the same path.
|South Carolina Players Who Have Left the Program in 2015|
The front seven was gashed last year to the tune of 212.23 rushing yards per game and only managed 14 sacks. Gerald Dixon, Gerald Dixon, Jr. and several other veterans need to take a step forward and be pushed by a bevy of newcomers who were brought in specifically to be instant-impact guys.
"The first thing that South Carolina absolutely had to do was upgrade the talent on the defense, particularly on the defensive line," said Mitchell. "With the additions of Marquavius Lewis, Dante Sawyer and Quandeski Whitlow, they've certainly added some talent to the defensive end position and it wouldn't be a shock to see both Lewis and Sawyer as starters in 2015."
If the defense only takes a small step forward and not a giant leap, can the Gamecocks be consistent enough offensively to dig out of holes dug by the defense?
That's very much a concern in Columbia.
I have six fewer passing attempts than the most experienced quarterback on the roster, Connor Mitch, who was 2-of-6 last year.
Whether it's Mitch, Perry Orth or new signee Lorenzo Nunez, South Carolina will enter the 2015 campaign with inexperience at quarterback. Also, it won't have Mike Davis to rely on at running back, while Corey Robinson and A.J. Cann are gone off of last year's offensive line.
The new-look South Carolina offense will be looking to build around all-everything wide receiver Pharoh Cooper.
If Spurrier can find somebody to get him the ball consistently and take some of the pressure off the rest of the offense, the Gamecocks should be able to move the football as long as running backs Brandon Wilds and David Williams stay healthy.
"While the defense should be improved, there are question marks on the offensive side at both quarterback and offensive line," said Mitchell. "That's not a good combination. In order for South Carolina to get back to the type of season it became accustomed to those three straight 11-win seasons, it will need to answer the questions there."
The window for Spurrier to win the East is closed, but not locked. Is a roster loaded with youth and uncertainty at key positions going to be what prevents it from becoming locked?
With Tennessee reeling in a second straight top-10 recruiting class, Florida moving in a more offensive direction with new head coach Jim McElwain, Missouri doing Missouri things and Georgia routinely being competitive, it's hard to imagine South Carolina recapturing the magic and contending for the SEC East in the near future.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on Sirius 93, XM 208.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports' composite rankings. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.