South Carolina joined the Southeastern Conference in 1992 and promptly lost 13 in a row to Florida, eight by 20 more points. Then Steve Spurrier came along; South Carolina has since gone 4-5, winning three of the last four in the series.
South Carolina started playing football in 1892 and promptly went 90 years before notching its first season with double-digit wins, and then embarked on a 22-year run with just seven winning seasons. Then came Spurrier; South Carolina has won 11 games in each of the last three years.
Prior to 2005, South Carolina was never ranked inside the top 10 of either preseason poll. Then Spurrier came to town; the Gamecocks have been ranked inside the top 10 in each of the past three preseason polls.
Prior to 2005, South Carolina earned just five end-of-year national rankings, peaking at No. 11 in 1984. Then came Spurrier; South Carolina has been nationally ranked to end each of the last four years, topping the charts at No. 4 last season.
South Carolina started playing football in 1892, as noted, and has never lost fewer than two games in a season during the modern era. The Gamecocks have snuck onto the radar before, famously during that 1984 season, but it's not until today, as the program heads into Spurrier's 10th season, that we can utter a sentence unheard in the history of college football:
South Carolina can win the national championship – and if it does so, few would be surprised.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
Although I can't project South Carolina to reach the title game, due to Alabama's presence in the West, I do think the Gamecocks secure the SEC's second BCS bid, meeting an elite opponent in the Sugar Bowl. How do you follow up two of the best seasons in school history?
In a nutshell: It's easy to make the case that South Carolina's ball-control offense and aggressively productive defense would have given the Gamecocks the best chance of any SEC East Division team at upending Auburn in the conference championship game. But that drags you down the rabbit hole: South Carolina only would have reached the Georgia Dome by taking care of business against one of Georgia and Tennessee, two highly painful regular-season losses … and if the Gamecocks had topped Auburn in early December, well, this program would have met Florida State for the national title. Instead, South Carolina had to settle for the disappointment of being the best team left out of the final iteration of the Bowl Championship Series – and one of the best teams in college football, though South Carolina left some achievements on the table.
High point: Beating Clemson. Again.
Low point: Tennessee. Unlike the loss to Georgia – then healthy and supremely dangerous – there was really no excuse for coming out flat against an inferior opponent.
Tidbit: South Carolina has now won five in a row against rival Clemson, with each win coming by 10 or more points. This is the Gamecocks' longest winning streak in the series, as you might imagine; the next-longest streak is four years, from 1951-54.
Tidbit (winning edition): Last year's 11-win finish tied a school record. The 22 wins during the past two seasons is a school record. The 33 wins during the last three seasons is, yes, a school record. And you might want to sit down: South Carolina's 42 wins during the last four seasons is also a – what's the phrase – school record.
Tidbit (recruiting edition): South Carolina has had not a recruiting class ranked outside the top 25 nationally, according to Rivals.com, for the duration of Spurrier's tenure with the program.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Spurrier digs, 2014 SEC Media Days
2. Texans at the Alamo
3. Big Ten rivalry games
4. Northern weather
5. Gene Chizik
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Dylan Thompson isn't Connor Shaw, but he's not your normal first-year starter. Yeah, Shaw leaves a void: South Carolina's going to miss his accuracy, his careful play, his ability to extend plays and his leadership, and players of these varied assets are often difficult – if not impossible – to replace. Yet Thompson, who has won all three of his starts and played superbly when used in reserve, is up to the challenge. This is your reward for sticking it out: Thompson gets the controls of the offense at just the right time, as a fifth-year senior, and seems supremely poised to deliver at an all-conference clip during his one and only turn as the Gamecocks' starter. What he'll bring to the table is a firm and concrete grasp of the offense, not to mention the arm to make every throw in Spurrier's book. Beyond the physical gifts, Thompson has earned the respect of this locker room – and a long leash from his coach – by delivering when given the opportunity, as in last year's win against UCF or, as a sophomore, against rival Clemson.
The simple truth of the matter: South Carolina's going to miss Shaw, but few programs would be so fortunate as to have a Thompson waiting to grab the reins. Let's also remember the SEC's general lack of experienced quarterbacks; Thompson might just enter the fall as one of the league's most proven options. All he needs to do, in essence, is deliver downfield – because defenses are going to creep up – and protect the football. I hesitate to call these certainties, because Thompson does need to prove he's immune to any lulls, but it's easy to see this fifth-year senior fulfill every obligation on his plate – and then some.
And he'll always have Mike Davis (1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns) to lend a hand. It took one night for South Carolina to rest easy at night: Davis went 75 yards for a score in the opener against North Carolina, officially ending any debate over whether this offense would survive for the long haul without Marcus Lattimore – even if that anxiety was always unfounded, to be honest. The result wasn't merely an adequate running game but perhaps the best of Spurrier's tenure, with Davis headlining the ground attack with all-conference production. He's a projected All-American in 2014 for a reason: Davis is big enough to churn out the tough yards needed during SEC play and quick and nimble enough to reel off big plays, as shown several times a season ago.
The Gamecocks also have solid depth – and may need it, because Davis is questionable for the opener against Texas A&M. Let's ignore the idea that questionable, in this sense, means 20-plus carries, and acknowledge how this running game could survive his brief absence. Brandon Wilds is back, for one, and he's a starting-caliber option if back to his old tricks. The offense should also try very hard to get Shon Carson (256 yards) more involved; he's slimmed down a touch, perhaps increasing the frequency of the long scamper he pulled off in last year's win against Florida. The Gamecocks also have redshirt freshman Dave Williams, though he's running fourth in the rotation.
The offensive line is anchored along the interior by an All-American, left guard A.J. Cann, and has a ready-made answer at right guard, the one spot devoid of a returning starter. South Carolina will replace Ronald Patrick with Mike Matulis, a 10-game starter who, after missing last season following shoulder surgery, shifted inside to right guard during spring drills. While he'll need to round back into form, Matulis is a very nice fit on the strong side. He also gives the Gamecocks the equivalent of five returning starters, joining Cann, senior left tackle Corey Robinson, junior right tackle Brandon Shell and sophomore centers Cody Waldrop and Clayton Stadnik, who shared snaps last fall and should do so again in 2014. Cann's the star, but don't sleep on the pairing on the edges: Robinson's set to explode and Shell gets better on a weekly basis – and together, this is a dynamite duo. When counting some strong depth from tackle to tackle, the line as a whole might be the program's best during Spurrier's tenure.
Defense: It seems as if coordinator Lorenzo Ward – enjoy him while you've got him, South Carolina – will run the Gamecocks more out of a 3-4 set than ever before, with that alignment perhaps replacing the traditional 4-2-5 look for the majority of snaps during the regular season. It's a move made to match the SEC, perhaps, but it's also one made out of a slight necessity: South Carolina has flipped things defensively, with the line now a question mark and the second level the clear strength of the entire defense – and let's remember a year ago, when the linebacker corps was an issue and the line, led by Jadeveon Clowney, one of the nation's best. On paper, the defense has some work to do; in reality, it might pay to have some faith in Ward and this coaching staff.
But shifting to three down linemen will help matters. The Gamecocks are losing Clowney, for one, and that dominates headlines. But the defensive front must also replace Kelcy Quarles, likewise an All-American, and it's going to be impossible to match last year's overall disruptiveness. But the line should be steady, particularly in the middle: J.T. Surratt is a leader along the interior, not to mention a strong all-conference contender; Gerald Dixon Jr. is ready for a starting role after serving as one of the top reserves last fall; Phillip Dukes and Kelsey Griffin are a year wiser and more experienced; and JUCO transfer Abu Lamin will have a profound impact once he grasps the system. That's a solid rotation inside, even if no one single tackle is going to match Quarles' ability to break into the backfield – but there's enough here for me to question why it's all doom and gloom.
Perhaps that's because of the holes on the outside. Clowney's irreplaceable, obviously, and not just for this coming season but for, well, forever. Meanwhile, South Carolina must also replace his running mate at end, Chaz Sutton, though that's a survivable loss. It's about promotions: Gerald Dixon – half-brother to the tackle – and Darius English will move into starting roles, technically, though don't be surprised if the Gamecocks lean on four or five ends in a wide-open rotation. English in particular will need to be spelled against certain packages, though he's added much-needed weight to grow into a three-down end. In general, South Carolina is going to need help from the second level to create pressure in the backfield.
The linebacker corps is hugely improved – and I can remember early last season, watching South Carolina's young linebackers run wildly against more seasoned offensive fronts and intermediate receiving targets. This has changed: South Carolina is far more seasoned at all spots, meaning any major decline from the front four would be substantially offset by this unit's improved production. One player set to burst onto the SEC radar is sophomore Skai Moore (56 tackles, 4 interceptions), who had a fantastic debut season on the weak side. Though still under the radar, I wouldn't be surprised if Moore was an all-conference pick. He's joined by a pair of returning starters: Kaiwan Lewis (54 tackles, 2 interceptions) is productive in the middle and Sharrod Golightly (47 tackles, 6.0 for loss) a solid fit as the Gamecocks' hybrid safety-linebacker – with some help from sophomore Jordan Diggs, a bigger option. When this defense does flex into a 3-4 set, don't be surprised if true freshman Bryson Allen-Williams earns starter's snaps alongside sophomore Larenz Bryant.
Senior Brison Williams (45 tackles) will spend at least the first few weeks of the season at cornerback, which makes sense: Williams is steady at strong safety, but South Carolina needs some experience on the outside while a trio of true freshmen get up to speed. One of those first-year contributors may start, actually; Al Harris Jr. has been terrific all spring, perhaps vaulting him into the starting lineup while sophomore Rico McWilliams and fellow rookies Wesley Green and Chris Lammons serve as the top reserves. For now, South Carolina's back end will feature sophomores Chaz Elder (29 tackles) and Chris Moody at free and strong safety, respectively, with senior Kadetrix Marcus sitting behind should Moody scuffle. You have to admire the talent on the outside, if a bit young; while it may not be a permanent solution, I think shifting Williams to cornerback was a very smart move while the youthful core develops.
Special teams: There's nothing particularly flashy about South Carolina's special teams, but the group gets it done across the board – hitting field goals, preventing big returns, flipping field position and so on down the line. Sophomore Elliott Fry is back, giving this program some rare continuity at kicker, while sophomore Pharoh Cooper turned in a strong debut season as the Gamecocks' primary season. It might seem like a small thing, but it'd be just fantastic if kickoff specialist Landon Ard could stop kicking the ball out of bounds.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Wide receiver: All South Carolina needs to do is identify another two or three targets to sit behind the top quartet. It's a solid core: Shaq Roland (25 receptions for 455 yards) is about to break out, I'd say; Damiere Byrd (33 for 575) has been stretching the field since day one, teaming with Roland to give Thompson two big-play receivers; Nick Jones (27 for 281) quietly moves the chains and serves as a sneaky contributor in the red zone; and Cooper, though young, is poised to hold a vastly increased role. Add in senior tight end Rory Anderson (17 for 235) and, well, everything should be fine. I still think South Carolina must find some reliability from the group of K.J Brent, Kane Whitehurst, Shamier Jeffery and two incoming freshmen. Once again: Everything's fine – if not better than fine.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Clemson: Please imagine, if you will, a scenario where South Carolina is 11-0, having dispatched all comers heading into the finale, and Clemson is 10-1, having topped Georgia and lost to Florida State by a touchdown. Please imagine, if you will, what will happen inside the Palmetto State during the days, hours and minutes leading up to kickoff in Death Valley on Nov. 29. To reach that point, however, the Gamecocks must handle Georgia, Texas A&M, Missouri, Auburn and Florida.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Get ready for South Carolina. The Gamecocks are ready, I promise you, and more than prepared to leap from SEC contender to one of the very best teams in all of college football. It's about all this team does extremely well: South Carolina will run the football tremendously, will attack downfield, will strike with big plays through the air and on the ground, will attack quarterbacks and backs behind the line of scrimmage, will run in space, will play the ball, will find explosiveness on both sides and will, by the end of November, stand atop the East Division with both feet firmly in the College Football Playoff conversation. This looks like the best team in program history.
Yeah, I know there are issues. The Gamecocks have some gaps on defense, of course, and will need a more team-wide effort to replace the individual production Clowney, Quarles and others brought to the table a season ago. I think the leadership and experience seen on both sides of the ball helps bridge the gap: South Carolina is loaded with seniors, unlike a season ago, and will rely on this senior-led poise to overcome any snags in the road during the regular season. In specific, the defense will again be among the SEC's best should the Gamecocks find just one edge rusher who can win the battle on third down and one cornerback among the youngsters who can solidify the outside. These aren't huge tasks to overcome.
The blueprint is nearly perfect. South Carolina's offense will run the football with great violence and then drop one over the top, thanks to a passing game led by a fifth-year senior starter. On defense, the Gamecocks will be strongest on the inside, helping the run defense, and will fly to the football from sideline to sideline. What's not to like? There's always this coaching staff, remember, and the slow and steady process: South Carolina was an also-ran, then a divisional threat, then a conference contender, and now a true national contender. While the top three seems set in stone, the Gamecocks are among the handful of teams – UCLA, Stanford, Baylor, Michigan State, Auburn, Oklahoma – fighting for the fourth spot in the playoff. I think this team truly has what it takes to get there.
Dream season: South Carolina beats Clemson by 223 points on the road to the first national championship in program history.
Nightmare season: The Gamecocks drop games to Georgia, Auburn, Florida and, to cap it off, Clemson.