Friday, June 22, 2007

SESB Preseason Top 25 - 18. South Carolina

18. South Carolina
If Spurrier and friends actually pull this off, they'll have really done something. The Ballcoach enters Year Three, and while the won/loss record (15-10) may not be overly impressive, the competitiveness has been. In Year One, Carolina blew a 15-0 lead on Georgia in a 17-15 loss, then got touched up by the still-intact Brodie Croyle/Tyrone Prothro machine the next week. Then they got blasted by Auburn by almost 40 points to move to 2-3 in the first week of October 2005.
But as soon as you started sweating, the Cocks won five straight. They beat the Vols in Knoxville, beat Arkansas in Fayetteville, and beat Florida in Columbia for the icing on the cake. It could've been even better, but then they lost 13-9 to Clemson, and gave a relatively poor showing against Missouri in an Independence Bowl loss to finish 7-5.

Again, competitiveness: last year South Carolina was 8-5, but after losing 18-0 to Georgia, they could've won all the other games. They really got outsmarted (read: outcoached) in a 24-17 Thursday night tough loss to Auburn. They were on the wrong end of several early fluke plays against Tennessee that turned into a 31-24 loss. Arkansas beat them 26-20. Florida blocked a field goal that would've given the Cocks the win at the end of the game. Spurrier got his feather in his cap with a 31-28 win at Clemson, then won an entertaining Liberty Bowl 44-36 over Houston.

But as anyone in the SEC will tell you, competiveness only satisfies for so long. No matter what Spurrier says (who thinks Carolina can win the SEC this year), the fanbase doesn't necessarily have to get to Atlanta to be satisfied in 2007. But if the Cocks fail to win a single big SEC game, as they did last year, it's going to be unsettling.

Before we look at the imposing schedule, let's look at the on-field talent. Blake Mitchell is back, but in Spurrier's rotating quarterback derby that may not mean much. A bigger piece to the offensive puzzle is the return of Cory Boyd at RB. This entire team is loaded with senior starters, including Mitchell and Boyd - eleven senior starters in all, which helps put the win-now pressure on.

Sidney Rice is playing on Sundays now, but Kenny McKinley returns, and JC transfer Larry Freeman looks to have won the other starting WR spot after spring practice. The tight ends are good and the line returns both starting tackles, but is brand new in the middle. Spurrier's offense, of course, needs the line to be productive to run smoothly. The Ballcoach has never needed the best talent in the world to make things roll, but he's got more than adequate players and plenty of experience on offense to score points. Last year, Carolina scored 20 points or less in four of their five losses. Even without Sidney Rice, the offense should be more consistent in 2007, and increase those numbers...

...and what's helpful there is the return of 9 starters on defense. This should be one of the SEC's better units. They lose Fred Bennett in the secondary, but that'll be the only noticeable loss. Spurrier's recruiting haul included three players currently projected to compete for starting positions on the defensive line - Clifton Geathers and Travian Robertson at end, and Ladi Ajiboye at tackle. That's even more impressive when you consider that the defensive line returns all four starters. Nathan Pepper and Joel Reaves are returning starters at tackle, and returning starters at end are now playing elsewhere - Ryan Brown (6'0", 256) is now playing fullback, while Casper Brinkley will be lining up next to his twin brother in the LB corps. You can also factor in Eric Norwood, who had seven sacks last year outside of the starting lineup, at end. Carolina could have the pieces in place to build a dominant d-line for the next few years.

The aforementioned LBs will be stout. Casper and Jasper Brinkley - Jasper playing in the middle, where he was All-SEC last year - will be a GameDay feature at some point or another this year, and their unique qualities will make them even more famous in the college football world. But they're not just famous - they're seniors, and they're good. Joined by '06 starters Rodney Paulk and Cody Wells...again, this is a very, very good defensive unit.
There's more good news in the secondary. Carlos Thomas is back at corner, and Chris Hampton and Stoney Woodson are also experienced. And Ryan Succop returns to handle kicking and punting duties. Shane Beamer, son of Frank and former UT graduate assistant, joins to team to handle special teams coaching, which means BeamerBall is short, it's hard to find a weak link on this entire team.
And so with all this talent, and with Spurrier, what's not to love? Well...
2007 South Carolina Schedule
09/01 - vs Louisiana-Lafayette
09/08 - at Georgia
09/15 - vs South Carolina State
09/22 - at LSU
09/29 - vs Mississippi State
10/04 - vs Kentucky (Thurs)
10/13 - at North Carolina
10/20 - vs Vanderbilt
10/27 - at Tennessee
11/03 - at Arkansas
11/10 - vs Florida
11/17 - off week
11/24 - vs Clemson
Final Analysis: The schedule does not include Auburn or Alabama. So that's good. What's bad is road trips to Athens, Baton Rouge, Knoxville, and Fayetteville. What's bad is the home finish with Florida and Clemson - though, if things have gone exceptionally well to that point, it'll really give South Carolina a chance to make national noise in November, and not just as a spoiler. The talent is here for this team to win 10 games and compete for the SEC East title in the toughest division in college football. The schedule is here for this team to lose six games and struggle to make a bowl game. And the end result will probably be somewhere inbetween.
First, Carolina must continue to avoid the upset, which they've done. Spurrier has brought some of that Bruce Pearl mentality to Columbia - we're going to win the ones we're supposed to, and some of the ones we're not. Carolina has dodged the upset bullet every single time under Spurrier. If they want to go where they want to go, they must go 4-0 during the middle of their schedule with all the potential upsets - Miss. State, Kentucky, at North Carolina, Vanderbilt. Giving them wins over Directional Louisiana and lower division SC State, that's six and a bowl right there. But once again, that will not satisfy.
So, if they hold form and don't get upset, out of at Georgia, at LSU, at Tennessee, at Arkansas, vs Florida and vs many will they win? Well, I've got them ranked 18th, so I'm going to give them one or two of those. But they will get at least one. South Carolina fans, with a schedule like this and no championship experience, need to learn to appreciate the value of divisional wins - which means beating Georgia is infinitely more important than beating LSU. Do not be fooled - there is real potential for South Carolina to come to Knoxville at 7-1 and ranked in the Top 10, and if the Vols hold up their end, you could have a division-defining game on your hands.
And of course, just as there's potential for a 7-1 start, there's potential for an 0-4 finish. Under both Lou Holtz and last year under Spurrier, South Carolina was not a strong finisher in the win/loss column. How the Gamecocks play under that sort of pressure is the difference between January 1 and mid-to-late December - I don't think they're going to be in Atlanta or be playing for it by the time the Florida game comes around, but don't think they're not an attractive selection for Orlando or Jacksonville if they have the necessary resume.
Still, once more, there are eight elite teams in the SEC this year with hungry fanbases. Even if two get in the BCS, there are three January 1 bids, and you've still got three teams on the outside. But here is the perfect time to talk about the Chick-fil-A Bowl. This is a great bowl game for a team that wants to be there. South Carolina, no matter what their fans say in June, wants to be there. It would be a definitive improvement. For a team that has a slide-inducing late schedule, but still has great talent...the Cocks are my pick to play in the Chick-fil-A. If they get one or two of those big game wins, and if they win their bowl game, you're talking about 8-9 wins and a nice taste in their mouth. And yeah, perhaps they're capable of more. But you don't pick a team that's been in the Independence and Liberty Bowls the last two years to all of a sudden win the SEC East. It's a journey, not a final destination. The journey will move forward for South Carolina in 2007...and then when they graduate 11 senior starters, it'll have to re-evaluate for 2008. But either way, it should be an interesting, and ultimately rewarding season for Spurrier's boys. It may not be as rewarding as SC fans want it to be off the cuff, but by the end of the year I think they'll be satisfied.

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