South Carolina has every reason to believe this could be the season it finally makes a legitimate run at an SEC Eastern Division title.
Yes, we know what you're thinking. Haven't we heard the same things every season since Steve Spurrier arrived at South Carolina, only to watch the Gamecocks' preseason optimism disintegrate during a late-season slump?
Rather than rising up the SEC ladder, South Carolina has settled into life as a middle-of-the-pack program during Spurrier's tenure. If the Gamecocks are ever going to make a run, this is an ideal time.
South Carolina returns eight starters on offense and seven more on defense at a time when its divisional rivals are relying on plenty of new faces. Florida is the clear-cut favorite to win the division, but South Carolina looks just as good on paper as any other team in the division.
The Gamecocks' chances of finishing as high as second in the division or even challenging for a trip to the Georgia Dome likely depend on whether quarterback Stephen Garcia ever puts it all together. If Garcia has a breakthrough season, South Carolina finally may end its recent history of November fades. If Garcia continues his up-and-down ways, the Gamecocks likely settle for another season of mediocrity.
THE SCHEME: South Carolina runs multiple formations, but the Gamecocks have had trouble running the ball consistently of late. They have used a fullback and some two-tight ends sets, but to no avail.
STAR POWER: Alshon Jeffery has only one year of college experience, but he already is one of the better receivers in the nation. Jeffery, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, caught 46 passes for 763 yards and six touchdowns last season, including a three-touchdown game against Kentucky in which he had seven receptions for 138 yards.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Marcus Lattimore arrives at South Carolina as the No. 1 running back and the No. 10 overall prospect in the 2010 recruiting class. Lattimore rushed for 1,898 yards and 31 touchdowns as a senior at Duncan (S.C.) Byrnes. South Carolina returns Kenny Miles (626 rushing yards last season) and a number of other backs, but Lattimore's talent and the Gamecocks' lackluster rushing attack should allow him to earn immediate playing time.
STRONGEST AREA: South Carolina has plenty of talented receivers, particularly if you add TEs Patrick DiMarco and Weslye Saunders to the mix. Jeffery, Jason Barnes, Tori Gurley and D.L. Moore give the Gamecocks four wide receiver who are at least 6-4. The receiving corps will get an even bigger boost if Dion LeCorn makes a successful comeback after missing the 2009 season with a broken ankle. Saunders caught 32 passes last season as the Gamecocks' No. 1 tight end, but he could have a tough time beating out DiMarco for the starting job this season. DiMarco, an excellent blocker, played fullback last season; he is the nephew of pro golfer Chris DiMarco.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The Gamecocks have plenty of instability on the line, where sophomore C T.J. Johnson was the only player to start every game last season. Shawn Elliott, hired off the staff at Appalachian State, is the Gamecocks' third line coach in the past three years. South Carolina also needs much more consistency from QB Stephen Garcia, who ranked 84th in the nation in passing efficiency last season.
THE SCHEME: South Carolina runs a 4-3 defense, and coordinator Ellis Johnson is a savvy veteran.
STAR POWER: E Cliff Matthews had seven sacks and 10 tackles for loss last season to earn second-team All-SEC honors from the league's coaches. He led the SEC with four fumble recoveries and tied for second in the league with three forced fumbles. Sophomore CB Stephon Gilmore is a rising star who started every game as a true freshman last season. Gilmore is athletic and versatile enough to play quarterback in the Wildcat formation on offense.
IMPACT NEWCOMERS: Byron Jerideau and J.T. Surratt have a chance at working their way into the rotation at tackle. Jerideau had 16 tackles for loss and blocked five field-goal attempts for Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College last season. Surratt, a true freshman, had 200 tackles and 37 sacks over his final two seasons at Winston-Salem (N.C.) Parkland.
STRONGEST AREA: Matthews, E Devin Taylor and Ts Ladi Ajiboye and Travian Robertson give South Carolina a quality front four. Matthews should rank among the SEC's top defensive linemen, while Ajiboye provides plenty of experience. If Taylor develops into a solid complementary pass rusher, South Carolina could have one of the better lines in the league.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: South Carolina has some concerns at linebacker and will have trouble replacing the production of departed All-SEC performer Eric Norwood. The Gamecocks are counting on Shaq Wilson to make a successful transition from middle linebacker to outside linebacker. South Carolina also needs to force more turnovers after ranking 99th in the nation with 17 takeaways last season. Norwood was the only Gamecock with more than one interception a year ago.
Spencer Lanning again will handle the kicking and punting chores. Lanning went 17-of-20 on field-goal attempts, though he was only 3-of-5 from at least 40 yards out and didn't make a kick from beyond 47 yards. Lanning also averaged 41.9 yards per punt last season to rank fifth in the SEC and 41st in the nation, though the Gamecocks ranked just 90th in net punting. Chris Culliver heads into his senior year ranked fifth in SEC history with 2,215 career kickoff return yards. Bryce Sherman also is a capable kick returner. Gilmore averaged 10.1 yards per punt return last season. The Gamecocks were atrocious in kickoff and punt coverage, ranking in the bottom 13 nationally in each category last season.
South Carolina once again faces one of the nation's toughest schedules. Among their first five games are contests against Alabama and Georgia at home and Auburn on the road. South Carolina also has troublesome home games with Southern Miss, Tennessee and Arkansas plus trips to Florida and Clemson. The good news is that the Gamecocks play four of their first five at home.
This represents a season of transition in the SEC East. Tennessee figures to be down. Kentucky is adjusting to a new coach. Florida has a new quarterback and defensive coordinator, while Georgia is relying on a redshirt freshman quarterback and a new defensive scheme. All that upheaval could allow South Carolina to make a move up the standings, but it can only happen if the Gamecocks get consistently strong performances from their offensive line and from Garcia. That's probably asking too much. The more likely scenario is that South Carolina wins some games it shouldn't but also loses some games it shouldn't on its way to an 8-5 finish.