by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

With the Gamecocks coming off their best season in school history, Steve Spurrier believes his squad can actually improve on last year’s 11-2 record, having set a goal of at least 12 victories for the 2012 campaign. WOW! South Carolina also registered a school-record six SEC wins in 2011, and the Gamecocks are a perfect 8-0 over the last two seasons vs. their four top rivals--Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and instate rival Clemson! Yes, it’s a TALL task improving on LY’s unprecedented campaign, but not out of the realm of possibility for the highly-successful Old Ball Coach, who has shown commendable flexibility by shifting his offensive philosophy as well as winning more than his share of recruiting battles for the premier prep stars in America over last several seasons. Spurrier had to make some coaching changes (4 assistants and the director of his strength and conditioning program left), with Lorenzo Ward being promoted to defensive coordinator, replacing highly-respected Ellis Johnson, who left to take over the head job at Southern Mississippi. But Spurrier has to be relieved he no longer has to worry about whether his QB will be suspended after dealing with “problem child” Stephen Garcia the previous few terms.

Seven starters are back on a potent, nicely-balanced offense (30.l ppg; 192 ypg rushing, 181 passing) ably directed by dual-threat QB Connor Shaw (right; 65.4 %, 14 TDPs, 6 ints.; 525 YR, 8 TDs), who blossomed over the last four weeks of 2011, completing an eye-popping 70 % during that stretch. Shaw (5-1 as starter) reportedly gained 12 pounds during winter workouts (to improve his durability), while running a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash. And following the spring session, QB coach G.A. Mangus feels Shaw improved his ability to shift in the pocket and keep his eyes downfield, rather than simply scrambling when pressure arises. Between Shaw’s running skills, the rapid emergence of soph Brandon Wilds (502 YR), the anticipated return of fast/powerful RB Marcus Lattimore ( 835 YR despite missing most of three games LY with torn ACL), the Gamecocks vaunted ground assault will be the forte once again. And even with the early departure of sensational WR Alshon Jeffery, there is no shortage of skill at wide-out, with productive jr. Ace Sanders (29 grabs) elevated to ringleader of a group bolstered by hotshot prep A-A WR Shaq Roland and RS frosh Shamier Jeffery (Alshon’s younger brother). The OL must replace both tackles, but coaches believe the younger front has more overall talent than LY’s group.

Six starters are back on a fast, swarming defensive platoon (18.4 ppg & 267.7 ypg;) that will undergo some changes with new d.c. Lorenzo Ward employing a more aggressive scheme (increased blitz packages) but still using the unorthodox 4-2-5 alignment. The Gamecocks will have one of the best DE tandems in the country, with tackle-shredding soph Jadeveon Clowney (left; reigning National Defensive Player of the Year) and sr. Devin Taylor (combined 14 sacks), who decided to return for his senior season. Ward has moved former SS Devonte Holloman to the critical Spur position (replaced graduated top tackler Antonio Allen), while dependable sr. MLB Shaq Wilson is the vocal leader. Plus, return of previously-injured CB Akeem Auguste (19 starts the previous two years after missing 2011 due to foot injury) should somewhat mitigate the loss of blanket-covering CB Stephon Gilmore, who turned pro a year early. And coaches have faith soph CB Victor Hampton could be something special if he becomes more disciplined after taking too many chances as a precocious frosh in 2011. New kickers must be found on special teams, but nifty Ace Sanders (punts) and dual-sport Bruce Ellington (KOs; star on hoop team) should be real assets in the return game.

Summary...Though it took Spurrier longer than expected to change the culture in Columbia, he has gotten the job done, with the Gamecocks going 20-7 the last two seasons. USC owns sufficient returning talent on both sides of ball--meshed with another cadre of prized newcomers--to capture to the SEC East title for the second time since 2010. The manageable early season slate gives Carolina a good shot to start out 5-0 before a murderous October (host Georgia before trips to LSU and Florida) will determine whether the “Evil Genius” can actually attain his lofty preseason goals. However, Mr. Shaw must remain healthy behind a relatively-green OL (RS frosh LT Brandon Shell protecting his blind-side) needing some time to synchronize, since there is virtually zero experience behind him.


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