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10 Burning Questions: South Carolina

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Is this the year that the Gamecocks finally win the elusive SEC championship?

Steve Spurrier enters his 10th season as head coach at South Carolina, hoping to put the cherry on top of the rebuilding project that started with Lou Holtz in 1999 and has been taken to a new level by Spurrier.

The cherry is, of course, an SEC title. Despite losing Connor Shaw and Jadeveon Clowney, this is the best roster that the Head Ball Coach has had in his decade in Columbia. With Florida and Tennessee still trying to find themselves and Georgia and Missouri both coming to Williams-Brice Stadium, the stars are aligned for the Gamecocks to make history.

Let’s look at 10 burning questions facing the 2014 Gamecocks.

1.   How will Dylan Thompson fare as the full-time starter?

Thompson is not heading into the season without experience, as he filled in for the oft-injured Shaw many times over the last two seasons, including leading a road victory at rival Clemson. The senior does not have the same reckless style that both made and broke Shaw, and he’s a more natural thrower. His best moments came in 2012, as his limited time last year was less than impressive. While Spurrier offered a glowing endorsement of Thompson following spring practice, Thompson will provide both “I miss Connor” and “Maybe Dylan should have played more last year” moments this season.

2.   Is Mike Davis a Heisman Trophy candidate?

This isn’t a Davis issue so much as it is a greater college football issue. The days of running backs winning sports’ most prestigious individual award may be over. In the era of spread offenses and multi-player backfields, it’s no wonder that quarterbacks have claimed seven of the last eight Heismans. Because he has less help around him than T.J. Yeldon at Alabama and Todd Gurley at Georgia do, the stats could propel Davis to, while maybe not Heisman contention, the top of the list for the Doak Walker Award. He’s had some injury concerns, both last year and during fall camp, but when healthy, Davis doesn’t take a backseat to any back in the country.

3.    Is there a true No. 1 wide receiver on the roster?

Not really. But what Spurrier wide receiver at Florida ever had sustained success in the NFL? Granted, Spurrier has gradually ditched the Fun ‘N’ Gun at South Carolina, but he still loves to go for the home run, especially after a turnover. The departed Bruce Ellington excelled at those big plays, and now there’s a hole to fill for a true go-to receiver. Seniors Nick Jones and Damiere Byrd and junior Shaq Roland are all solid, SEC-caliber wideouts, but there’s no star in the bunch. Converted running back Pharoh Cooper and true freshman Shaq Davidson may have the most upside.  

4.   How healthy is Rory Anderson?

The senior tight end more commonly known as “Busta” had surgery in the spring to repair a torn triceps muscle, putting his status for the season in jeopardy. He’s questionable for Thursday’s opener against Texas A&M, but even if he sits it out, he should return in the not-too-distant future. Spurrier has made more use of tight ends in Columbia than he did in Gainesville, so the Gamecocks could use Anderson at full speed. Junior Jerrell Adams shared time with Anderson last year, catching 13 passes, meaning there is a capable Plan B if Anderson’s recovery lingers.

5.   Is this the best offensive line in college football?

A week ago, it might have been, but right guard Mike Matulis suffered a knee injury that will likely keep him out until midseason. There’s still plenty of talent and experience, however, led by left guard A.J. Cann and right tackle Brandon Shell. Matulis was the only expected starter who was not in the lineup in 2013, having redshirted following a shoulder injury. Cann is a fourth-year starter, and Shell and left tackle Corey Robinson are third-year starters, so this unit is loaded with experience. Season-ending injuries at Auburn (Alex Kozan) and Oregon (Tyler Johnstone) have complicated the “best offensive line in the country” debate. I’m still taking Florida State’s, but if Matulis returns at 100 percent, this Gamecocks unit is right up there with the Seminoles unit.

6.  How well will the defensive schematic tweaks work?

South Carolina had ran a 4-2-5 base scheme for years under both Ellis Johnson and now Lorenzo Ward, devising the “SPUR” name for their hybrid safety-linebacker, currently manned by senior Sharrod Golightly. Ward has tinkered with a 3-4 alignment during the offseason to take advantage of the abundance of linebacker talent coupled with the loss of three defensive line starters. South Carolina wasn’t great against the run in the 4-2-5, so it isn’t that risky of a move pulling a linemen off the field, especially with facing spread teams Texas A&M, East Carolina and Missouri before September ends.

7.   Who attempts to fill the massive shoes of No. 7?

Technically, it’s freshman cornerback Wesley Green who will wear No. 7, but that’s not the issue here. What does the defensive line have to replace not only Clowney, but also 13-game starter Chaz Sutton at the other defensive end spot? A neat story is developing in Columbia, as half-brothers Gerald Dixon and Gerald Dixon Jr. are likely to start the season opener at end and tackle respectively. Dixon has battled injuries since arriving at South Carolina, taking two medical redshirts for a broken leg and a concussion. Sophomore Darius English is expected to man the other defensive end spot, but opponents won’t be game-planning for one player, as they did with Clowney.

8.   How much of a concern are the cornerbacks?

Victor Hampton left early for the NFL, joining Jimmy Legree as departing starting cornerbacks for South Carolina. Only Blake Bortles and Aaron Murray threw for more than 250 yards against the Gamecocks last season, so the bar is high for the replacements. But just who are those replacements? Could it be one or more from the freshmen trio of Green, Chris Lammons and Al Harris Jr.? Redshirt sophomore Rico McWilliams is the only cornerback in contention for a starting role that isn’t a first or second-year player. Ward coached defensive backs before being promoted to coordinator, so expect to him to at least have this unit well-prepared despite its lack of experience.

9.   Will there be the patented South Carolina stupid loss?

It was Kentucky in 2010 the week after beating Alabama. It was Auburn in 2011 after starting 4-0. It was Tennessee in 2013. South Carolina has beaten the SEC East champion in each of the past three seasons, but some inexplicable losses (and bad scheduling luck in 2012) has kept the Gamecocks out of the conference championship game. A Week 4 trip to Vanderbilt, on the heels of the showdown with Georgia, could be dangerous, as is going to Kentucky after playing Missouri, the last of a six-games-in-six-weeks stretch to open the season. It’s an issue that is difficult to diagnose, but one that South Carolina must address if it wants to win that elusive SEC title.

10.   How will South Carolina finish in the 2014 season?

After 23 years, it’s going to happen. South Carolina will win its first conference title since winning the ACC 45 years ago. Oh, the stupid loss will still happen (Sept. 20 at Vanderbilt), but the Gamecocks will sweep the other three viable SEC East contenders and finish 10-2. South Carolina defeated Alabama in their last meeting, and will do so again in the SEC Championship Game. Is that enough to earn a playoff berth? I’m going to say yes, but much of that will be out of South Carolina’s control. I’ll call for a Sugar Bowl appearance against Oklahoma, which means we get to hear Spurrier say “Bobby Stoops” for four straight weeks. In that regard, everybody wins.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.