Posted: 4:09 p.m. Monday, Aug. 12, 2013
By Brandon Larrabee
CLOWNEY COMIN'. There is more to the thought that this team could go far than "Jadeveon Clowney will fix everything," but there's a reason that Bill Connelly came to that conclusion, and one of the certainties is that Clowney will be the best player at South Carolina and maybe the country. Even with all the attention devoted to Clowney by opposing offenses, he still averaged basically a sack per game (13 total), putting him near the top of the NCAA, and had 23.5 tackles for loss. He also forced three fumbles and did this.
The flip side of this, of course, is that South Carolina has been as affected as every other team in the SEC East by defensive attrition, which would allow for even more focus on Clowney. But even that could help the less experienced players. Clowney will be great; the only question is whether it will show up in the box score.
The divisional schedule complaints are gone. If South Carolina loses the East this year, it will be because even Steve Spurrier will have to acknowledge they deserved to lose the East. For the interdivision schedule, the Gamecocks go to Arkansas and get Mississippi State at home, neither of which figure to be pushovers but neither of which are going to be playing for the division title. The other two SEC contenders, meanwhile, either visit LSU (Florida) or face the Tigers at home (Georgia). No one considered to be in the mix for the ticket to Atlanta will play against Alabama or Texas A&M; short of the SEC Championship Game, but South Carolina clearly got the easiest SEC draw of the bunch, barring a surprise.
Both quarterbacks will play some. You can get varying opinions on whether Connor Shaw will continue to be the guy without question, or whether Dylan Thompson will make a serious push for more playing time. I've said before not to be stunned if Thompson ends up with more playing time than Shaw -- but that's more of a "could happen" than a "will happen." I still expect Shaw to get more playing time if everything goes according to plan, but Thompson will almost certainly get his share of the snaps if Spurrier gets impatient with Shaw's running (he will) and wants to get more going in the way of a passing attack (he certainly will).
Whether the ground game will be effective. The last couple of seasons have shown that the Gamecocks offense can survive without Marcus Lattimore; South Carolina is 9-1 over the last two years without their star running back, with two wins against Clemson and bowl victories against Nebraska and Michigan as part of that. But those are also the most difficult wins in those stretches; 2011 was the only other bowl-eligible team that South Carolina beat without Lattimore. At the same time, Kenny Miles was the only player other than Lattimore to have a 100-yard game last year, and that was against Wofford. On 27 carries. Mike Davis, who averaged 5.3 yards a carry, seems like the most likely starter this year, but neither he nor anyone else on the roster has proven that they can take over Lattimore's responsibilities.
How the defense will do. Clowney or no, there's going to be a lot of youth taking the field for South Carolina when the other team's offense has the ball. The Gamecocks will have to essentially reconstitute the linebacking corps and do major reconstructive work on the secondary. The good news for them is that the rest of the division isn't in much better shape, and Georgia -- which could be the only ranked team South Carolina will face until November -- actually has even more replacement to do. But an ill-timed breakdown elsewhere in the conference schedule could turn a loss against one of the other contenders from a major hurdle to an impossible obstacle, and that breakdown looks more likely to come on defense than offense.
How long Steve Spurrier will remain in Columbia. This is one of the most complicated issues that faces South Carolina today. Spurrier is 68 and has already reached most of the major goals he set in coming to South Carolina, save the SEC title. He's also entering his ninth season in Columbia and getting ever closer to the 12 seasons he spent at Florida. I've always wondered if 11 or 12 is maybe as far as Spurrier will go for a simple reason: Does the Florida alumnus want to be the coach at South Carolina longer than he was the coach at Florida? Even Gamecock fans know that Spurrier will be cheering for Florida more than South Carolina once he retires; if he ends up coach for four or five more years in Columbia, he will have walked the sidelines for more games wearing garnet and black than orange and blue, and I'm not sure he wants to do that. On the other hand, Spurrier shows few outward signs of slowing down, and is far less discouraged than he was during his first few years with the Gamecocks -- for good reason.