Don't write off the 2015 Gamecocks just yet
The South Carolina Gamecocks regressed in a major way last season in the aftermath of three consecutive 11-win campaigns from 2011-13. Those teams, of course, were led by the likes of Connor Shaw and Jadeveon Clowney, among others, while last year’s team was led by a first-year starting quarterback and a depleted defense, especially along the defensive line.
South Carolina finished last season with a dismal 7-6 record, and it ranked in the bottom 10 of the entire FBS in sacks and tackles for loss. As a whole, the defense was atrocious, allowing opponents to amass 432 yards per game, better only than Texas A&M in the SEC. The offense quite a bit better, scoring at least 30 points nine times in 13 games despite positing a modest 5-4 record in those games.
Nevertheless, the Gamecocks also blew three double-digit fourth quarter leads along the way, and they allowed 35 points to a Clemson team led by a freshman quarterback playing on a torn ACL to snap the Gamecocks’ five-year win streak over their arch-rival.
Many expect South Carolina to be just as average in 2015 as it was in 2014, especially after the string of decommitments it suffered during the last recruiting cycle. In fact, most believe the Gamecocks’ title window has passed them by, that those three years and 33 wins from 2011-13 were a fluke and not the standard, that a 7-6 team is what South Carolina truly is on a year in, year out basis.
But all hope is not lost in Columbia, S.C. Steve Spurrier is still a Hall of Fame coach and considered as one of the best coaches in SEC history. He may be 70, nearing retirement and past his prime (which may have led to the recruiting woes), but the man knows how to coach up talent and how to find ways to win against ranked opponents, a regular circumstance in the SEC.
South Carolina will also benefit from the playmakers it returns on offense. Pharoh Cooper is one of the most complete football players in all of college football, and he has the ability to impact a game in a number of ways at a number of different positions. Carolina used him beautifully last year, and he should be in store for an even bigger season this year.
And despite losing tailback Mike Davis to the NFL, the thunder-and-lightning tandem of Brandon Wilds and David Williams should allow the Cocks to maintain an effective run game with the two tailbacks keeping one another fresh for the late-season stretch run.
South Carolina must once again find a new quarterback, shore up its offensive line, and find depth at receiver behind Cooper; those tasks won’t be easy and they will be time-consuming. But if Carolina can even make progress in those areas, namely by finding a quarterback who can at least manage games and protect the football, it will be able to score enough points to remain competitive in games.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Gamecocks knew they’d need to rebuild last year’s horrendous defensive line, and they did just that by signing seven defensive linemen during the last recruiting cycle, including four rated as four- or five-star prospects. A few of those players will come to South Carolina from junior college or military schools, including Marquavius Lewis, the top junior college defensive end in the class, and Dexter Wideman, the top military school player in the nation.
If those players can make an early impact, which is more likely than if they were entering the program straight out of high school, it will change the entire dynamic of the South Carolina defense. The Gamecocks return young, promising talents at linebacker and in the secondary who should be improved from last year. That core includes players like linebacker Jonathan Walton, who starred in last year’s bowl game, linebacker Skai Moore, linebacker Jordan Diggs, defensive back T.J. Gurley, defensive back Rico McWilliams and defensive back Chris Moody.
With some adequate pressure up front on passing downs and a stronger push against opposing rushing attacks, those players listed above will have more opportunity to make plays all over the field. Not only are they each improved individually, but the improvement of the defensive line should enhance their play even more.
Carolina brought in Jon Hoke, a former NFL defensive coordinator, to lead its defense, moving former DC Lorenzo Ward to co-coordinator status, allowing him to focus more on recruiting, which has been his strength on the staff. Hoke is a better X’s and O’s coach, and this move should also allow the Gamecocks to utilize their talent better within the scheme.
And lastly, South Carolina will benefit in 2015 from an SEC East as weak as it was a year ago. Georgia may have the most talented roster in the division, but like South Carolina it has no quarterback in place. Tennessee has made a surge to potential East contender, but its roster is among the youngest in the SEC, which could cause trouble for the Vols as they aim to win 10 games. These are good teams, but they’re teams South Carolina can absolutely beat. After all, the Gamecocks beat Georgia a year ago when Georgia had Todd Gurley posting Heisman numbers on a weekly basis.
South Carolina has a coach who has won championships, and it has better, more experienced talent than it did a year ago, especially on defense. Of course, it still needs a quarterback and an offensive line, and its new defensive linemen still need to prove themselves in the SEC. The Gamecocks are still a work in progress. But so is most of the rest of the East, and even if Carolina can’t win a division title, it can achieve a lot more than seven wins in 2015.