2013 record: 11-2 overall, 6-2 in SEC (2nd in SEC East)
2013 postseason: Capital One Bowl vs. Wisconsin (34-24 win)
2013 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 4/No. 4
Head coach: Steve Spurrier (219-79-2 overall; 77-39 in nine years at South Carolina)
Offensive coordinator: Steve Spurrier Jr. (third season as co-coordinator); Shawn Elliott (third season as co-coordinator)
2013 offensive rankings: 32nd rushing offense (198.5 ypg); 40th passing offense (253.8 ypg); 36th total offense (452.3 ypg); 32nd scoring offense (34.1 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: Eight
Defensive coordinator: Lorenzo Ward (third season)
2013 defensive rankings: 50th rushing defense (153.8 ypg); 12th passing defense (196.2 ypg); 19th total defense (350 ypg); 12th scoring defense (20.3 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: Six
Location: Columbia, SC
Stadium: Williams-Brice Stadium (80,250; Grass)
Last conference title: 1969 (ACC)
Sure, there were a couple of key departures on one of the best defenses in the conference, and the starting quarterback, the winningest of all-time at the school, needs replaced. That said, this should still be arguably the most talented and deepest squad Spurrier & Company have put on the field since the OBC came to Columbia a decade ago. Returning are two of the best skill position players in the passing game in the SEC to go along with four starting offensive lineman. The former will help the new starter under center, while the latter will greatly aid said starter as well as the underrated Mike Davis in the backfield. The schedule also sets up nicely, with just a pair of what could even remotely be considered formidable road trips: at Auburn and at in-state rival Clemson. The Gamecocks have owned the ACC Tigers — won five straight — of late, with CU needing to reload at several important positions, so calling that game formidable might be a stretch at this early juncture.
The cornerbacks. And, actually, that’s way too harsh and not even remotely accurate; the corners aren’t “bad.” Rather, they’re extremely raw and very inexperienced — only one player at the position has played in a game at the collegiate level. The good news for the Gamecocks is that they have significant returning experience at both safety positions, which should help as at least two, possibly three, true freshmen will be needed to contribute immediately. Another negative from the same unit that somewhat relates to the secondary? USC’s top two pass rushers left for the NFL, meaning any help the young corners could get from a significant pass rush during their transition is somewhat mitigated. Certainly there’s talent to replace what was lost, but it may take some time..
With Connor Shaw gone, USC will be breaking in a new first-time full-time starting quarterback. Dylan Thompson‘s different than a lot of first-time starters, however, as he at least has some experience in that capacity — he’s 3-0 in his career as a starter replacing an injured Shaw and has thrown passes in 20 of the games in which he’s played the past three years. Still, there’s additional pressure being the everyday, every-down man under center, although Thompson appears to have the kind of poise and personality where the stage won’t even remotely be too big for him. He won’t have time to ease into that role, either, as USC’s first three games are against Texas A&M, East Carolina (a 10-3 team in 2013) and Georgia. The good news is that all three of those games are in Columbia, with the first road test coming Sept. 20 against Vanderbilt.
MAKE-OR-BREAK GAME: vs, Georgia, Sept. 13
As I stated in No. 12 Georgia’s preview, and as both Georgia and South Carolina are expected to be the cream of the crop in the SEC East, it would stand to reason that this game, played the third weekend of the season, could prove to be the SEC title game ticket-puncher for the winning side. While UGA won last year’s game, USC has owned the series of late by winning the previous three by a combined 42 points. The fact that the game is in Columbia bodes well for the Gamecocks. Well, that and the fact that, at least on paper, they’ll be the more talented of the two teams.
HEISMAN HOPEFUL: running back Mike Davis
One of the most underrated players in the country at any position, Davis will get the opportunity, especially early on, to carry more of the offensive workload as Thompson establishes his footing as the Gamecocks’ full-time starter for the first time. While Davis — very quietly — rushed for nearly 1,200 yards last season, his work in the passing game (34-352) is an ofttimes overlooked facet that provides an extra dimension for his offense — and another consideration for voters. If the Gamecocks can have the type of team success they had in 2013 and Davis can increase his production — especially in high-profile games — then come late November and early December he could very well be in the midst of the discussion.
(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)