The 2014 Gamecocks entered the season with an unprecedented amount of hype. Consensus preseason #9 ranking (with one 1st place vote in the Coach's Poll), overwhelming media pick to win the SEC East, dark horse contender for the inaugural College Football Playoff, etc. I must say that in all my years as a South Carolina fan, this was definitely the apex of my excitement for the program. As everyone can guess, my excitement was not able to make it out of the 1st Quarter of the 1st game intact. We were thoroughly dismantled by what turned out to be a somewhat average Texas A&M team, vaulting a young QB (who was benched halfway through the season) to the top of the Heisman race in the process. It was quickly apparent as the clock wound down that Friday morning that we were in for a long season. Will the defense be improved in 2015? Will we be able to replace the single-season school record holder for passing yards? Here's some thoughts on this year's Gamecocks:
This is obvious, but the biggest factor that will determine whether the season is successful or not is our play at DE. We were consistently nasty on D from 2009 through 2013, and a major part of that wasn't only a once-in-a-generation talent like Clowney, but also elite DEs like Cliff Matthews, Melvin Ingram, Devin Taylor, and Chaz Sutton (maybe not quite elite, but pretty solid). It's actually crazy to think how successful we've been in recruiting and developing prototypical 4-3 DEs, which are some of the rarest type of athletes. The difficulty in finding 6'5", 250lbs+ guys that can move is a big reason why so many teams use the 3-4, and USC has to be one of the most consistent teams putting these type of guys on the field in the past decade (even though some of these guys end up playing 3-4 OLB in the pros (Clowney, Ingram). We had nobody anywhere near this level last year. Our roster pretty much consisted of a bunch of undersized converted linebackers or big guys without any athleticism. Much has been said about the impact of Marquavius Lewis at the position. He is without a doubt a huge upgrade. One guy isn't going to turn things around though, but we did add a lot of other guys that I think will have an impact by the end of the season. I think we'll see Dante Sawyer starting starting early at the 3-technique, and I think we can expect to see him play some DE opposite of Lewis in certain packages. After time in JUCO both of those guys are physically ready to play. The future looks bright as well considering the other 2 guys we recruited at the position: Shameik Blackshear and Quandeski Whitlow. At one time Blackshear was rated the #1/#2 SDE prospect before his knee injury as senior. Whitlow is a high upside guy: lightly recruited early but then a lot of teams pushed hard for his services in the final months of recruiting season. Last year we had a total of zero pressure on the quarterback and no ability whatsoever to set the edge outside (excruciatingly evident in the Clemson game), and I truly think this will change due to the influx of new talent. That alone will make our D much better than it was last year.
I really like what I'm hearing about our new scheme on D. Moving to a true 4-3 is going to let us get more talent from our best position group (LB) on the field. Supposedly we'll be running a lot of Tampa 2 coverage, and I can't think of a more ideal Tampa 2 MLB than Skai Moore. This coverage requires a MLB to be able to take a deep drop to cover the middle of the field on passes (essentially resulting in a cover 3) and the WLB to be badass tackler on the run. Moore and Walton are going to be great in this defense. I've also got a really good feeling about Larenz Bryant at SAM this year. As for back-ups Bryson Allen-Williams will be great filling in at WILL and possibly SAM. Both Moore and Walton should have a chance to end up on All-SEC teams.
As another part of our new scheme, I absolutely love the moves we've made in the secondary. Next to DE, our safety play was the most atrocious part of the 2014 defense. We've made the SPUR into a true nickel position and moved TJ Gurley and Jasper Sasser here. We've moved Diggs to SS, and with DJ Smith backing-up here we'll finally be getting back to having a hard hitting box safety that we haven't had since the days of Darian Stewart / DJ Swearinger. Transfer Isaiah Johnson was one of the best defensive players in the Big 12 and will be a starter from day one at free. I think our corners will play a lot better this year given the experience gained last season and better pressure on the QB from our DL. Chris Lammons could end-up on some All-SEC teams.
On the offensive side of the ball, who the hell knows how we'll end-up at QB? Connor Mitch definitely looks the part: big, tall, blue-eyed, and pretty. He's also probably one of the most highly-regarded recruits we've ever brought in at the position. But considering that bro only has 6 pass attempts (and only completed 2 of those), there's not much evidence for optimism. This has the potential to get ugly......
At RB, we seem to be pretty solid. Brandon Wilds has proven himself to be very dependable over the past 4-years, and has showed some flashes of being very good at the position (Georgia last year comes to mind). David Williams is my pick for the break-out player of the year. Dude is big (around 215-220) and FAST (with Byrd graduated, he and Shon Carson are likely two fastest guys on the team). If we get ourselves into a situation like 2011 though (5th string true-freshman RB (Wilds) starting at the end of the season due to injuries), I'm not sure we have the necessary depth to be competitive here (although I probably would have said the same thing in 2011 as well).
Receiver......not sure how to feel about this group. Pharoh Cooper is of course a baller, but he's also 1 of 2 receivers that has every recorded a reception (Shamier Jeffrey with 8 receptions in what feels like 10 years being the other one). Despite this, this group appears to have a ton of potential. Everything I've heard about Deebo Samuel makes me think he is legit. Terry Googer is the first big receiver we've had since the days of Tori Gurley and Alshon Jeffrey (dude is 6'4", 225lbs) and I think that's something we've really been missing the past two years. DJ Neal made a lot of noise in pre-season camp coming in as a true Freshman, and KC Crosby will be a versatile option for several different roles. None of this potential at WR will mean anything though if QB play isn't up to snuff.
I feel OK about O-line. I think we'll perform similarly to how we have the past few years. We probably don't have the raw talent we had last year (losing Cann and Robinson hurts), but given how we seem to consistently underachieve here I don't think we'll see a big drop off. We won't be great, but we should be serviceable here.
Our schedule absolutely sucks. We travel to Georgia, Missouri, A&M, and Tennessee. Screw Eric Hyman for getting us paired with A&M. They're supposedly going to finish last in the West this year, but this is just not a team I think we match-up well against. I think if we win one of these games we'll consider our away performance a success this year. And why are we playing UCF?! This is another one for which we have Eric Hyman to thank. They're not going to be anywhere near as good as they have been the past few years, but they are still one of the toughest mid-major programs to face. That Missouri game might get a bit chippy, and Maty Mauk could get a messed up in this one, as he isn't all that good but is apparently a big talker.
Here's my predictions for the season:
North Carolina - W
Kentucky - W
at Georgia - L
UCF - W
at Missouri - W
LSU - L
Vanderbilt - W
at Texas A&M - L
at Tennessee - L
Florida - W
Citadel - W
Clemson - W
So I'm calling an 8-4 regular season. Considering the schedule I know this is optimistic, but I'm a Gamecock homer, and I can't force myself to be realistic here. 7-5 is obviously a more realistic prediction. I think we'll end up winning one that we shouldn't (Georgia / LSU) and losing to some crap team like Kentucky (again). I've got us losing to Tennessee at the moment, but given that this game is fairly late in the season and Tennessee's current injury issues, they could end up with a lack of depth that could turn the game to our favor. I actually feel pretty good about that Clemson prediction. They are in full-blown rebuild mode this year, especially considering the recent departures on defense during camp.
We'll find out soon whether the Gamecocks are going to take a step forward this year when they meet North Carolina in Charlotte on September 3rd. Go Cocks.