The Gamecocks appear poised to have one of their best seasons ever in 2012, coming off a school record 11-win campaign a season ago. But despite the division title aspirations and BCS bowl dreams, there’s still a lot of questions facing this year’s squad. Garnet Report breaks down the biggest.
1. How will the defense play?
Melvin Ingram. Stephon Gilmore. Travian Robertson. Antonio Allen. C.C. Whitlock. Those are some huge shoes to fill. All five of these key contributors from last year’s team are gone. It’s not that the guys remaining don’t know how to play. You’re just always concerned when you lose nearly half of a unit that was as dominant as last season’s third-ranked defense. Also gone is defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who’s now the head coach at Southern Miss. Lorenzo Ward was named Johnson’s replacement after the Gamecock defense suffocated Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. It’ll be interesting to see how the defense responds. The defensive line looks to be solid, but the secondary may experience some growing pains.
2. Will Connor Shaw develop into a complete quarterback?
When we got our first glimpse of Connor Shaw last season, he lacked touch on his passes and was too quick to bail out of the pocket and scramble. But something seemed to happen to him during the game against The Citadel in November. By season’s end, he was making great decision in the zone-read option, standing in the pocket under pressure and delivering passes with pinpoint accuracy, choosing the right times to scramble for huge chunks of yards, and was even beginning to look comfortable taking a hit instead of sliding down on every run. Gamecock fans hope his metamorphosis into a complete player has continued through the offseason. If it has, Shaw has a chance to put up some gaudy numbers in 2012.
3. Who’s going to replace Alshon?
The biggest loss from last year’s team is without question Alshon Jeffery. For most of the last three seasons, he was Carolina’s only true weapon in the passing attack. Now he’s off to the NFL, leaving behind a receiving corps that hasn’t caught a lot of balls. Shaq Roland, an incoming freshman from nearby Lexington, has been very impressive in the preseason, as has K.J. Brent. South Carolina has true weapons at the tight end position, highlighted by the 6’6″, 224 lb. Jerell Adams. Ace Sanders and Damiere Byrd have the speed and athleticism to become key contributors. And don’t Alshon’s little brother Shamier. Will there be another star in the Gamecocks’ receiving corps, or will it be a committee approach? Only time will tell.
4. How will the schedule affect the SEC East race?
Players and coaches have been saying all the right things. Every public comment on the conference schedule, save for Spurrier’s quip about how he’d rather have USC face Ole Miss and Georgia play LSU, has reiterated that no matter who they play, if South Carolina wins the games on its schedule it will play for an SEC Championship. But we all know that Georgia has a much easier conference slate than Carolina for the second consecutive year. There’s plenty of conspiracy theories out there, but it’s not that the Gamecocks got shafted. It’s just that with the SEC’s predetermined rotation, this is what we got stuck with. Carolina doesn’t face defending national champion Alabama, but does travel to national title contender LSU and faces SEC West sleeper pick Arkansas at home. Georgia’s West schedule consists of a trip to Auburn and a home date against Ole Miss. Basically, it comes down to this: if Georgia beats the Gamecocks in Columbia, it would take wins in all of Carolina’s remaining conference games and two losses by Georgia to win the East. And guys, there’s just not two teams on their schedule that can beat them. If Carolina takes care of its own business it won’t matter, but you have to wonder if the schedule will be the deciding factor in who makes it to Atlanta.
5. Is this the year Carolina puts it all together?
We were close last year. A few plays here and there against Auburn and Carolina’s looking at an 11-1 regular season, a trip to the SEC Championship Game, and who knows what else. Even in our best years, we still seem to lose a game that we shouldn’t, or let one slip away against a marquee opponent that could have turned a great season into a legendary one. Will this finally be the year the Gamecocks win every game we’re supposed to win, reach our fullest potential, and capture an elusive SEC Championship and BCS bowl bid?
6. Will the SEC’s newcomers impact the divisional races at all?
The short answer is, probably not. Texas A&M will join a West division that will likely be dominated by the Big Two, with Arkansas nipping closely at their heels. Missouri will compete in the East, will probably be steamrolled by both Georgia and South Carolina, and will have a mediocre, middle-of-the-pack year. On paper, A&M looks to be the closest to seriously threatening for a division title, with its passionate fan base, football-crazed culture, fertile recruiting base, and savvy new athletics director (Eric Hyman). But both schools will probably be watching the division races from the sidelines as they begin to assimilate to the SEC way of life, at least for the first couple of years. They could impact the divisional races in a roundabout way, however. Georgia travels to Missouri for the Tigers’ first SEC game ever. An upset could give the Gamecocks the cushion over Georgia they need to win the East. Or maybe Texas A&M will score an upset that opens the door for somebody to take control of the West. It’s more likely, however, that it’s at least a few years before either team can seriously compete for a division title.
7. Can Marcus Lattimore legitimately compete for the Heisman?
Lattimore has given no indication whether he plans to leave school after this season for the NFL, but most people would tell him that the smartest decision for his career would be to wear an NFL jersey in 2013 rather than a Gamecock one. This may be his last shot at college football’s most coveted individual award. He got off to a relatively slow start in 2011 before the Navy game, in which he rushed for what seemed like 5,000 yards. He was on pace for a very solid season before his crippling knee injury in Starkville. The biggest concern for Lattimore isn’t whether he has the ability to win a Heisman, or even if he’ll get enough carries to amass Heisman-like stats. It’s whether or not his knee is back to 100%. All indications are that he’s completely healthy. If he hasn’t suffered any psychological hangover from the injury and feels able to plant his foot and make cuts as quickly as before, expect him to be comfortably in the discussion as the season wears on.
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