Steve Spurrier’s currently leading the Golden Era of South Carolina football and his Gamecocks arrive, after another 11-2 campaign, at No. 3 in Saturday Down South’s final SEC rankings, an unrivaled look at how the league’s 14 programs fared last season based on preseason expectations, on-field success, stability, recruiting and program momentum.
Final SEC Rankings of 2013:
Enjoy the debate.
3. South Carolina (11-2, 6-2)
At season’s end, many believed the Gamecocks were the SEC’s second best team with a six-game winning streak including a head-to-head road victory at East champ Mizzou. Despite another Top 10 finish, its highest-ever ranking at No. 4, South Carolina didn’t reach the conference championship game for a third straight season — a cold fact that baffles Spurrier and the rest of Gamecock Nation.
On-field performance: A-; Third consecutive 11-win season
No player meant more toward the upward ascension success of his football team than Connor Shaw, the Gamecocks’ senior 2.5-year starting quarterback that finished his career with a school-record 27 wins including a sparkling 17-0 record at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Shaw saved his best for last, helping the Gamecocks to their third consecutive bowl win with a 368-yard, 5-touchdown performance in the Capital One Bowl that earned him MVP honors. Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney took most of the headlines during his tenure, but it was the Flowery Branch, Ga. native’s precision in and around the pocket that made South Carolina a consistent threat in the East.
Clowney’s roller coaster junior season that began with Heisman buzz and ended with drooling scouts in Orlando featured constant double teams, media criticism and an overall lack of production. He may not have reached the school-record sack total that seemed like a lock, but he’s still projected by most to be the top pick in the NFL Draft unless the Houston Texans go with a quarterback.
Houston owner Bob McNair, a South Carolina grad, has recently raved about the Clowney-JJ Watt possibility along his defensive line.
Expectations: B+; No East title as Tennessee letdown stings
There’s always a head-scratching loss for South Carolina and this year’s setback came at Tennessee. Had the Gamecocks escaped Neyland Stadium with a win, South Carolina would’ve likely played Auburn in Atlanta with a one-loss shot at playing for the BCS Championship.
Shaw’s brilliant fourth-quarter comeback and overtime heroics at Mizzou kept the Gamecocks in the title picture, but the Tigers kept winning to snuff out division hopes.
Was this Spurrier’s best shot at an SEC Championship in Columbia?
RELATED: South Carolina regular season recap
South Carolina finished the season ranked in the Top 10 for the third consecutive year but still did not appear in the program’s first-ever BCS game. The SEC’s proved too difficult — despite 33 wins since 2011 — to earn a spot. The Gamecocks were the only team in college football to beat six bowl winners this season, including two that captured BCS games (Clemson, Central Florida), but don’t have much to show for it other than Spurrier’s own declaration of ‘National Champion of the Bowl Season’.
Coaching: B+; Spurrier gives Clemson the thumb
With the youngest team in college football heading into August, few expected the Gamecocks to reach 11 wins and stay put in the Top 10 despite a favorable schedule by SEC standards. Not only did South Carolina rebound after an early loss to Georgia at Central Florida, but the Gamecocks beat highly-ranked Clemson for a rivalry record fifth consecutive year. South Carolina set school record totals on offense and tossed a conference-low four interceptions (Shaw, 1; Dylan Thompson, 3).
Lorenzo Ward’s safe approach on defense helped South Carolina absorb the loss of secondary captain D.J. Swearinger, pass-rushing end Devin Taylor and three senior linebackers off the 2012 team to finish second in the SEC in total defense (20.3 PPG). The Gamecocks were especially strong against the pass, finished second in turnover margin at plus-13 and gave up just 228 first downs all season.
Recruiting: B+; Needed help coming in the secondary
South Carolina welcomes a class this spring that got a much-needed boost on National Signing Day with the addition of three four stars who waited until the final hour to announce. Two crucial signees are Abu Lamin, a 300-pound JUCO transfer out of Fayetteville, N.C., and linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams, one of Georgia’s top players. Lamin will bring stability to a defensive front that loses Clowney and Kelcy Quarles to the NFL Draft.
In-state offensive stars Shaq Davidson (WR, Gaffney) and Donell Stanley (OG, Latta) could fight for early playing time. Davidson has 4.4 speed and Bruce Ellington’s early exit to the pro’s opens an opportunity for the 6-foot, 170-pound newcomer. South Carolina’s biggest position of need is at corner where the Gamecocks replace each of last season’s top cover guys — Jimmy Legree and Victor Hampton.
D.J. Smith out of Marietta, Ga., should get early reps and coaches like his strength in man-to-man coverage. He’s one of five defensive backs in this year’s class, joining Wesley Green (4-star, Lithonia, Ga.), Chris Lammons (4-star, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.), Darin Smalls (Summerville, S.C.) and Al Harris Jr. (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.).
Dexter Wideman’s (4-star, Saluda, S.C.) late flip to the Gamecocks from Florida State on NSD was due to a late recruiting push from South Carolina assistants G.A. Mangus and Deke Adams. He’s a 6-foot-4, 265-pound defensive tackle.
Program momentum: B+; Gamecocks have arrived
South Carolina holds the nation’s longest home winning streak at 18 games, a sign of growing confidence of the program Spurrier has built in Columbia. The Head Ball Coach, South Carolina’s winningest coach, says he doesn’t think about retirement and as long as he’s healthy, will remain on the sidelines. That’s vital for the Gamecocks and a fanbase starving for a league championship season.
Photo Credit: Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports