South Carolina lost the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft (defensive end Jadeveon Clowney) and the best quarterback in school history (Connor Shaw). So why are the Gamecocks confident that they can stretch their streak of seasons with double-digit victories to four and win the SEC East for the first time since 2010? Because they bring back almost everyone else. South Carolina had one of the youngest teams in the country last season, and those kids accounted for 78.9% of their rushing yards and 74.8% of their receiving yards. Six of their top eight tacklers return, as do four offensive line starters, including three (guard A.J. Cann and tackles Corey Robinson and Brandon Shell) with at least 22 career starts.
Replacing the star power matters, though. With no proven edge rushers, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward installed a 3-4 scheme to use the gap-clogging capabilities of the 6'2", 310-pound, five-technique J.T. Surratt. On offense, fifth-year senior Dylan Thompson filled in ably when Shaw was sidelined, throwing a game-winning TD pass against Michigan in the 2013 Outback Bowl.
In each of the past three seasons South Carolina has beaten the eventual SEC East champ but failed to win the division. If the Gamecocks can claim the East, they’re only one good day in Atlanta from the playoff.
Opposing coach's take
What did they do well on defense? They did Clowney really well. They’re going to miss him tremendously. They also had [defensive tackle Kelcy] Quarles, who was really good, who left early too. They had a couple of young defensive ends who showed up pretty well on film. A lot of their success up front has really been personnel-driven rather than straight-up scheme. Their linebackers were probably the weak point of their defense; opponents could create some matchup issues with them. But [coach Steve Spurrier] has done a great job of recruiting. He’s got difference-makers now.
On offense, you can tell Steve has been doing this a long time. You might get him some, but he’s going to get you some, too. And he knows how to fix his stuff when you do get to him. He can fix it in a hurry. As you watch the tape, you’re like, All right, I’m going to attack him this way. But there’s something in that arsenal that scares you from attacking him that way. And if he gets you, it’s going to be six. You can’t cheat on defense. You can’t get exotic too often.
Dylan Thompson doesn’t run as well as Connor Shaw did, so tailback Mike Davis will have even more responsibility. He outrushed every returning SEC player in 2013 except Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon, gaining 1,183 yards on 203 carries with 11 TDs on the ground. The challenge for Davis will be busting through defenses that know he’s coming. Shaw was a master of the zone read, and defenders knew he might keep the ball. Thompson isn’t as dangerous, so D’s will tilt toward Davis on those plays.
South Carolina might have the toughest first three games of any team in the nation -- Texas A&M, East Carolina and Georgia -- but all three are at Williams-Brice Stadium. While the Gamecocks’ 18-game home winning streak will be at risk, if they emerge 3-0 they’ll have the inside track on the SEC East championship. Two late-season road games could derail their playoff hopes; getting by Auburn on Oct. 25 won’t be easy. Neither will winning at Florida on Nov. 15.