14 Burning Questions for 2012: #2 – South Carolina

We’re almost finished.  14 SEC teams and a burning question for each.  Today we answer a question related to South Carolina.

#2 – Can South Carolina survive their schedule?

Last year should have been the Gamecocks’ year.  The returned Heisman trophy contender Marcus Lattimore at running back, a seasoned quarterback in Stephen Garcia, Alshon Jeffery at receiver and a defense that included Melvin Ingram, Stephon Gilmore and Jadeveon Clowney.  They also had a very, very favorable schedule.  Georgia in week two and Arkansas and Florida in November should have been their only three tests.

Things looked good on paper, but pretty much crumbled from the start.

Lattimore was lost early in the season to a knee injury.  Garcia acted like an immature clown and Jeffery looked to be out of shape.  The offense went on to average 30.1 points per game, good for fifth in the conference, but that average is somewhat misleading.  Take away 56 points against East Carolina and 45 against Georgia, 54 points against helpless Kentucky and 41 against The Citadel and you’ve got an offense that scored about 22 points per game – good for 10th in the league.

Carolina’s worst performance offensively, by far, came against Auburn in a 16-13 loss.  These same Tigers were pounded without mercy by Clemson, Arkansas, LSU, Georgia and Alabama.  Heck, even Samford scored 16 against Auburn.  This Auburn defense gave up an average of 408 yards per game, but somehow held Carolina to 289 yards – the second lowest total they allowed all year.

The offensive performance by Carolina was mystifying.  And it cost the Gamecocks their second consecutive SEC East title.  Carolina also lost to Arkansas, but the Auburn game was winnable and they gave it away.

A season later, the Gamecocks still have a good team, but the conditions are much different.

Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson is gone along with Ingram and Gilmore.  Garcia left in mid-season last year and Jeffery departed for the NFL.  And Lattimore plans to return from a major knee injury.

The schedule is also one of the toughest in the conference.  It’s not exactly Alabama circa 2010, but it does include Georgia (h), LSU (a) and Florida (a) back-to-back-to-back and it includes Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas and Clemson.

So why do I like the Gamecocks so much this year?

Well, first, I think Steve Spurrier is once again the best coach in the East.  It’s taken him a while, but he finally has this program where few thought he could take it – consistently at the top of the East.  He has some talent in Columbia and he also loves to beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.

Second, he finally has a player at quarterback.  Connor Shaw took over for Garcia last year and played admirably.  He played in all but three games in 2011 and became the starter in the Kentucky game.  Overall, he completed 65.4% of his passes for 1,448 yards, 14 touchdowns and only six interceptions.  Those numbers don’t compare favorably to Spurrier’s Florida offenses from the 1990s, but these are different times.  Shaw also rushed for 525 yards and eight touchdowns.  He’s truly a double threat at quarterback and with a 65% completion mark and a good TD-to-Int ratio, he’s just what the Gamecocks need.

Third, if Lattimore is healthy, he’s the best back in the conference, if not the country.  I have my doubts as to whether he can return 100% one season after surgery.  For his sake, I truly hope so, but that’s a lot to ask.  If, and that’s a big if, he can come back, the East will have a hard time stopping Carolina.

Fourth, though the overall schedule is harder, the East is somewhat down.  I just don’t see Florida jumping back to the top of the East in year two of Will Muschamp and I’m not sure Georgia has the discipline to compete for an entire season (especially in the head-to-head with South Carolina).

Fifth, I think their defense will be good enough.  The biggest loss was Gilmore, and the secondary won’t be as good as 2011, but the defensive line and linebacking corp are still both very good.

Yes, the environment has changed quite a bit for the Gamecocks compared to 2011, but they should have enough talent and coaching skill to fare very well, even with a tougher schedule.