Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Cocked and Loaded: South Carolina Ready to Capitalize on Banner Year

In Chinese astrology, the New Year begins anywhere from late January to mid February, accompanied by an animal zodiac. According to the Chinese, 2010 was the year of the tiger. But for those following the football team fielded by the University of South Carolina, 2010 felt more like the year of the gamecock. Save their final two losses to Auburn and Florida State in December, this past season was one for the ages. First, it was the 35-21 upset at home over then #1 Alabama back in October for the Gamecocks’ first win against a top-ranked football team. Then, in November, the Gamecocks won in Gainesville for the first time as they swamped the Florida Gators, 36-14, and earned their first berth to the SEC title game. Later that month, South Carolina went on the road and dominated Clemson, 29-7, to win consecutive games against their hated in-state rival for the first time since 1970.

This is no anomaly, folks. The South Carolina Gamecocks are for real.

But just how magical was 2010 for the boys from Columbia? Here’s some historical perspective. The last time South Carolina won at least nine regular season games was back in 1984, when they won 10. And, by the way, it’s only the second time in the program’s 117 year history they’ve done so. They have never played for a conference championship in football before, much less have a chance to get to one. This was also the first year that the Gamecocks had a running back rush for over 1,000 yards (Marcus Lattimore with 1,197) and a receiver catch for over 1,000 yards (Alshon Jeffery with 1,517). Their monumental season helped reverse the school’s reputation as lackluster punching bags in the sport, and several individuals stand out when crediting this transformation.

Unequivocally, the star athlete on this team and for years to come is the freshman running back Marcus Lattimore. How good is Lattimore? Consider this. He became the first Gamecock to rush for over 1,000 yards since Derek Watson had 1,066 yards in 2000. He ranks among the top-5 in points scored, touchdowns per game, and rushing yards per game in the SEC, arguably the toughest conference in all of college football. Lattimore even managed to garner several votes on the Heisman Trophy ballot this past year. (Did I mention he was a freshman?) The last time anyone from South Carolina, much less a running back, appeared on a Heisman ballot was George Rogers when he won the award back in 1980, the Gamecocks’ lone Heisman winner. If Lattimore stays healthy, maintains his eligibility and returns for his senior year, he can make a serious run at several career rushing records at South Carolina, and possibly a shot at the Heisman.

Likewise, keep a close eye out for sophomore wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. He is among the top wide receivers in the SEC in yards per game. He’s already set a single season team record for most reception yards, easily besting the previous mark held by former standout Sidney Rice in 2005 by 374 yards. He was even named one of three finalists for the Fred Biletnikoff Award, which is given to the top wide receiver in the nation. While others – such as A.J. Green of Georgia and Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma – get all the attention, Jeffery is a hidden gem with a bright future in the NFL someday.

However, Lattimore and Jeffery aren’t the only undergrads making noise. Sophomores D.L. Moore, Tori Gurley, Stephon Gilmore, and D.J. Swearinger have made a strong impact building up on their freshman campaigns. And among other promising freshman, Connor Shaw is being groomed as the quarterback of the future for the Gamecocks.

But until that happens, the current quarterback deserves just as much credit for orchestrating the team’s success. Junior Stephen Garcia has steadily progressed to become more efficient at South Carolina. He’s improved his completion percentage and passer rating every year, as well as his throwing for more yards and touchdowns. Everything has gone up for Garcia heading into his senior season. Unfortunately, another stat that has also gone up is his interception total. He’s thrown no fewer than 8 interceptions each year, and he nearly doubled that standard with 14 in 2010, a season high. Often times, they’ve came at critical points in a game where the opposition subsequently seized momentum and took control the rest of the way. Though the Gamecock fanbase has been lukewarm about Garcia at best and anemic at worse, he still has the reins for one more year to make his mark as one of South Carolina's most successful quarterbacks.

Defensively, the team was anchored by seniors Cliff Matthews, Ladi Ajiboye, Josh Dickerson, and Tony Straughter, whose presence will surely be missed. As a whole, the South Carolina defense recorded 41 sacks, easily the best mark in the SEC and ranked in the top-10 among all Division 1-A schools. Expect them to replenish and reload next season.

As far as special teams go, senior Spencer Lanning is the only one to thank. He took over kick-off, punting, extra point, and field goal duties for South Carolina his junior year after backing up Ryan Succop, the final pick of the 2009 NFL Draft and current placekicker for the Kansas City Chiefs. Lanning concluded his collegiate career with 80 kicks for PATs and 34 field goals. Jay Wooten is expected to become the primary kicker for the Gamecocks next season, who saw limited action with the North Carolina Tar Heels in 2008 and this past season when he transfered to South Carolina.

And, lest we forget, the brain behind this remarkable run has been head coach Steve Spurrier. When he was introduced as the thirty-second head football coach at the University of South Carolina in 2004, Spurrier acknowledged that the Gamecocks were capable of contending for supremacy in both the Eastern division and the SEC. At the time, it was wishful thinking. Now, it’s a long-awaited revelation come true. Well, at least partly. His recruiting classes each year rank among the top-25 in the country annually. The Gamecocks finished the 2010 season ranked #22 in the AP and USA Today's coaches poll, their first season ending top-25 ranking in nine years and the first under Spurrier. And while he's 1-4 in bowl games at South Carolina, the Gamecocks have yet to record a losing season under Spurrier's tutelage, something many fans are far too accustomed to witnessing. Until they go back to their losing ways, or if he retires or dies, the Ol' Ball Coach is here to stay.

The Gamecocks also had their fair share of feel-good stories to tell, highlighted by 27-year old Matthew Grooms, a senior long-snapper and an Iraqi war veteran who was twice cut from the Gamecocks before finally making the squad in 2009 as a walk-on.

That’s not to say that they’re an unstoppable juggernaut, or will be any time soon. At times, they’re far from it. The offense relies heavily on Lattimore carrying the ball, and if he’s not effective or sidelined with an injury, the Gamecock offense suffers mightily. That’s why they blew a 17-point lead at Kentucky, struggled to win at Vanderbilt the following week, couldn’t keep pace with Arkansas’ offensive attack at home, and never held the lead against Auburn or Florida State playing in the Georgia Dome. On the other side of the ball, the Gamecocks’ pass defense is among the worst in the SEC, giving up an average of 241.9 yards through the air per game. While their rush defense is third in the conference giving up only 112.4 yards per game, it’s hard to consistently pressure teams to turn the ball over when they know they’re only one deep pass away from making a game-changing play. Other than that, South Carolina is, statistically speaking, an average team in virtually every other offensive and defensive category. And average is not going to cut it if the Gamecocks want to be considered an elite team.

It’s also not wise to suggest that South Carolina will start running away with the division any time soon or become a contender for the BCS. Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida will continue to find top recruits to play for them, in spite of coaching uncertainties at all three schools. Additionally, success on the gridiron has been fleeting for South Carolina and, as any Gamecock fan will tell you, they tend to find new ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Furthermore, with their loss to Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl last New Year’s Eve, the Gamecocks have now set a school record for most bowl games lost in consecutive seasons with three. The longest bowl losing streak by the Gamecocks is eight, which they’ve strung along from 1946 to 1988. If the Gamecocks can’t close out the season with a win, it’s hard to convince scouts, future recruits, and college football experts their program is on the upswing.

At the very least, it is refreshing to see some new blood in the mix. From 1992 (the first year of SEC play for the Gamecocks) up until 2009, South Carolina finished a combined 9-45 against Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida, the three teams that always won the SEC East during that stretch of time. 2010 marked the first time South Carolina beat all three of them in the same season.

But, enough about the 2010 season. That was so last year. Let’s look ahead to 2011.

South Carolina’s schedule is noticeably softer than in years past. They’ll open with a de facto road game against East Carolina to be played in Charlotte, a team they haven’t faced since 1999, followed by their first conference game against rival Georgia in Athens. From there, the Gamecocks will host a four game homestand against Navy, Vanderbilt, Auburn, and Kentucky. Then, they’ll travel to Starkville to play Mississippi State there for the first time since the 2006 season opener before having a much-needed bye week. They’ll continue their road stretch following the bye with conference games at Tennessee and Arkansas before closing out the year with three consecutive home games against Florida, The Citadel, and Clemson. The game against The Citadel is noteworthy in that it’s the first game between the two schools since the Bulldogs upset the Gamecocks in Columbia back in 1990. It’s also noteworthy to point out that the Gamecocks’ hardest road tests from 2010 – at Auburn and at Florida – will play at Williams-Brice Stadium this time around, and Alabama is swapped out for Mississippi State. Even the most cynical critic can favor South Carolina to win at least seven of those games this forthcoming season.

This is a team and a program that has long since paid its dues and endured decades of ignominy. From waiting until 1995 to win their first bowl game, to losing 23 consecutive games from 1998-1999, to sending out coach Lou Holtz with the infamous Carolina-Clemson brawl in 2004, the time has come for the Gamecocks to bury their mediocre past and crow in a brighter, successful and more optimistic future.

So to quote one USC as advice to another USC: Fight on. Next year is here, regardless of what the Chinese calendar says.

Statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com, GamecockCentral.com, Sports-Reference.com, and TotalFootballStats.com

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