Photo courtesy of South Carolina Athletics
By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: In Steve Spurrier's seventh year as head coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks, he led the team to arguably the greatest season in school history.
Expectations were high coming into the 2011 campaign with a preseason No. 12 ranking, and the Gamecocks backed up the hype with a 4-0 start - their biggest win during the stretch coming on the road at SEC Eastern Division rival Georgia in thrilling fashion, 45-42. They dropped an Oct. 1 home matchup to Auburn (16-13) before ripping off three straight wins to improve to 7-1.
South Carolina's toughest test of the season came in a Nov. 5 clash with No. 8 Arkansas, which they lost by a final of 44-28, but that would be the team's last setback as it won three in a row to end the regular season.
Despite having beat Georgia earlier, and having a better overall record, the Gamecocks' 6-2 SEC mark was a game behind Georgia's at 7-1, so they missed out on a chance to play for the SEC Championship. They instead accepted a bid to the Citrus Bowl, where they defeated Nebraska in a 30-13 decision. The 11 wins were a school record and its No. 8 ranking marked the first time the team ever finished a season in the top-10.
OFFENSE: South Carolina was one of the better SEC teams on the offensive side of the ball a year ago, ranking fifth in points per game (30.1) and fourth in yards per game (375.4). With several key returning starters, it only figures that the Gamecocks will improve upon those numbers this fall.
With nearly 1,200 yards and 17 touchdowns as a freshman, Marcus Lattimore had already asserted himself as one of the best running backs in the nation in 2010, and it was more of the same through the first seven games of his sophomore season, as he collected an amazing 818 yards and 10 touchdowns before his season was cut short by a knee injury. Now healthy, Lattimore tries to cement himself as a true Heisman contender and a top pro prospect.
"Marcus rehabbed (his knee) beautifully, done everything they asked and probably a little bit more." Spurrier said. "He should be ready to go."
Quarterback Connor Shaw also missed some time to injury last season, but still proved he is one of the more reliable signal-callers in the conference by completing 65.4 percent of his passes for 1,448 yards, 14 touchdowns and 6 interceptions in 10 games. Shaw is also a huge contributor in the running game, adding 705 yards and 8 scores. He proved to be up for the challenge in his first year as the starter, and figures to improve in his junior year.
Although last year's top receiver, Alshon Jeffrey (762 yards, eight TDs) is gone, wideout Ace Sanders (383 yards) and tight end Justice Cunningham (142 yards), along with Lattimore out of the backfield (182 yards), have shown to be reliable options.
DEFENSE: As impressive as the Gamecocks offense was in '11, the defense was arguably the reason for most of the team's success. They finished third in the SEC behind only Alabama and LSU in scoring defense (18.8 ppg), while allowing just 268.9 yards per game. Though the loss of defensive leaders Melvin Ingram (10 sacks) and Antonio Allen (88 tackles, three interceptions, four forced fumbles) certainly hurts, the team retains a ton of talent.
D.J. Swearinger was key in the club's three-safety set a year ago, recording 80 tackles and 3 interceptions. DeVonte Holloman was also effective in the secondary, compiling 51 tackles, 4 tackles for loss and an interception despite missing a pair of games.
Defensive ends Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney caused havoc in the opposition's backfield all year long, combining for 20.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks. Clowney added 5 forced fumbles in an amazing rookie campaign, which culminated in a Second Team All-SEC selection and the SEC Freshman of the Year honor.
"I have full confidence and I like what we are doing on defense," Spurrier said. "We expect Jadeveon to play more than he did last year. We need to turn him loose."
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Gamecocks will have two new specialists this season, with Adam Yates serving as the placekicker, and Mike Williamson as the punter.
Bruce Ellington was USC's primary kickoff returner in 2011, gaining 463 yards on 20 returns. Sanders has big play potential as a punt returner too, as he returned a 68-yarder for a touchdown last season.
OUTLOOK: As it was last year, the SEC East appears to be a two-horse race between South Carolina and Georgia, which means the Oct. 6 matchup between the teams in Columbia is one that most college football will be watching.
Outside of that game, the Gamecocks seem to have the more difficult schedule between the two, with their toughest tests coming at home versus Arkansas, and on the road against Florida and LSU.
South Carolina clearly has the talent to earn a berth in the SEC Championship Game. Despite high expectations, Spurrier doesn't want to get too far ahead of himself.
"We could potentially have a very strong team, but we could go the other way," he said. "I think this is the most talented team we've had at South Carolina."
With the Gamecocks' tricky schedule, they will need to win that crucial matchup against the Bulldogs for their best shot at improving upon last year's performance.