OVERVIEW: Coach Steve Spurrier hasn't lost any of his offensive "genius." He just needed the right players - and with sophomore TRB Marcus Lattimore and junior WR Alshon Jeffery, he has two of the nation's best at their respective positions. Spurrier still runs a pro-style attack and most frequently uses a three-wide receiver, one-tight end set. But he will use a fullback and also employ two tight ends. And as last season showed, when he has a stud tailback, he uses him. Spurrier might be all about the forward pass, but he is well-aware of what a big-time tailback can do for your offense.
AN INSIDE LOOK
THE LINGERING QUESTION: Can senior QB Stephen Garcia play consistently enough for the Gamecocks to win their second division crown in a row? He has excellent weapons around him and a good defense that can bail him out of some messes. But Garcia being Garcia, he is going to mess up a few times. The hope among Gamecocks followers is that the messes don't lead to that many losses.
THE BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Garcia plays steady football and lets TB Marcus Lattimore and WR Alshon Jeffery do all the heavy lifting. The offensive line jells early and freshman DE Jadeveon Clowney lives up to billing, making for a killer defense. The Gamecocks stumble just once in the regular season, run away with the SEC East title and head to their first BCS bowl as the SEC runner-up.
THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO: The secondary again is strafed, the offensive line struggles to maintain consistency and Garcia crumbles under the pressure of expectations and reverts to his 2009 form, making mistake after mistake. The Gamecocks fall at Georgia in Game 2 and the season is uneven after that. They finish 7-5 and head to a minor bowl.
STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: The Gamecocks averaged 154.4 rushing yards per game last season - not a huge number but still their best rushing average under Spurrier and their highest total since 2004. Not so coincidentally, they had their best season under Spurrier. The higher that number, the better off the Gamecocks will be this season.
BACKFIELD: Lattimore arrived last season with a ton of hype - and actually may have exceeded it. He's a big guy (6-0/231) who can take a pounding. He is equally at home running between the tackles or taking it wide. Lattimore isn't a blazer, but he does have good speed and also can simply run over people. He set a school single-season TD record with 19 last season and also is a solid receiver. Depth at tailback is good, too, with Kenny Miles and Eric Baker, who can provide a change of pace when Lattimore is resting. The Gamecocks will miss FB Patrick DiMarco, who was a good blocker and receiver. Coaches have cross-trained a few players at tight end and fullback, including Dalton Wilson and projected starting TE Justice Cunningham. That brings us to QB Stephen Garcia, a fifth-year senior who probably has been in the news as much for what he has done off the field as on it. Garcia, simply, hasn't shown the maturity you'd expect from a quarterback. He has been in trouble throughout his career and was suspended for spring practice, and Spurrier let it be known during SEC Media Days that Garcia would need to win the job in fall drills. Still, it's hard to imagine a team with this much talent turning the offense over to untested sophomore Connor Shaw. Garcia threw for 3,059 yards and 20 TDs last season, completing a career-high 64.2 percent of his passes. But as is his wont, he also made too many mistakes, tossing 14 picks; nine of those came in the Gamecocks' five losses. Garcia has good mobility but too often makes poor decisions when pressured. Shaw - whose brother, Jaybo, is the starting quarterback at FCS member Georgia Southern - played in nine games as a true freshman last season, going 23-of-33 for 223 yards, a TD and two picks. Like his brother, he is a good runner.
RECEIVERS: Jeffery is a stud, plain and simple. He has great size (6-4/223) and usually can simply overpower opposing defenders. But he also has good hands and is faster than he looks, making him a matchup nightmare. He had 88 receptions for 1,517 yards and nine TDs last season, and should be a prime contender for the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's top wide receiver. If he worked with a more consistent quarterback - i.e., like the ones Spurrier had at Florida for most of his tenure there - Jeffery would be a threat to reach the 1,800-yard plateau. He gets so much attention from opposing defensive backs that South Carolina's complementary receivers should feast. But for whatever reason, that really didn't happen last season. Lattimore is the second-leading returning receiver, and Spurrier needs another wide receiver or two to step up and be productive. Junior D.L. Moore has the potential to be a 40-catch guy. True freshman Damiere Byrd is a speed merchant and will get every opportunity to make an impact. Sophomore Ace Sanders' quickness makes him ideal in the slot if he can maintain consistency.
LINE: Three starters return, but one - Rokevious Watkins - is changing positions, moving from guard to tackle. Junior C T.J. Johnson is the headliner, and he should vie for all-league honors. He has started every game the past two seasons. Watkins started every game last season after redshirting in 2009 following a transfer from a junior college. The other returning starter is LT Kyle Nunn, a senior who has started 16 career games. He has had weight issues in the past and has slimmed down, to 296, for his final season. The new starters at guard are expected to be senior Terrence Campbell and redshirt freshman A.J. Cann. Campbell, who received a sixth season of eligibility from the NCAA because of his injury history, hasn't been a fulltime starter since 2008. Cann, a former four-star recruit, had a big spring and moved atop the depth chart. His backup is converted DT Kenny Davis. While depth at tackle looks OK, the interior depth seems iffy.
OVERVIEW: Ellis Johnson is one of the best coordinators in the nation, though he never really seems to get the acclaim he deserves. He's a throwback of sorts in that he places a huge emphasis on shutting down the run. Still, he oversees a unit that plays aggressively, and he always seems to get the most from less-than-elite talent.
LINE: This has the potential to be one of the best lines in the SEC - and in the nation. Two starters are back - E Devin Taylor and T Travian Robertson - and both should contend for all-conference honors, Also returning is E Melvin Ingram, who ranked third in the league with nine sacks last season despite being a reserve. But all the attention is going to be focused on true freshman E Jadeveon Clowney, who was the No. 1 recruit in the nation. Clowney (6-6/245) is freakishly athletic and is expected to be a prime pass-rush force from Day One. How he holds up against the run is a big question, but the thought is he will play because he can get to the passer. He had an astounding 29 sacks last season at Rock Hill (S.C.) South Pointe. If Clowney lives up to the hype, South Carolina will have the best trio of ends in the nation. The new starter at tackle is expected to be junior Aldrick Fordham, whose ability to be a run-stuffer is in question. Coaches are high on true freshman T Kelcy Quarles, who enrolled in January after playing at a prep school last fall. He had a strong spring and is going to see time this fall.
LINEBACKERS: There isn't a true standout, just some solid players. The return of Shaq Wilson in the middle is important; he led the team in tackles in 2009, then missed most of last season with a hamstring injury. He's a good leader and generally is in the right place at the right time. It would help if Rodney Paulk, another sixth-year senior, can stay healthy. He would provide another steadying influence, though he hasn't been a fulltime starter since 2006 and '07. The lone returning starter is senior Antonio Allen, who plays the "Spur" position for the Gamecocks; it's a hybrid outside linebacker/safety spot. Allen isn't that big (6-2/208) but he can run. One positive is that depth at the position looks OK. DeVonte Holloman, who was the starting strong safety last season, was moved to "Spur" during the spring and will see time.
SECONDARY: CB Stephon Gilmore has a ton of talent and should contend for, at the least, All-SEC honors. But this group struggled last season; despite a good pass rush, South Carolina allowed 241.9 passing yards per game and surrendered 23 TD passes. Both starting safeties will be new, and that could be a problem. Akeem Auguste, who started at free safety last season, should start at corner this fall; that's his natural position and he started nine games at corner in 2009. He will try to hold off senior C.C. Whitlock, who has started 10 games in his career. The new free safety will be sophomore Jimmy Legree, who made four tackles in 11 games last season. His backup is true freshman Brison Williams, who enrolled in January after playing prep-school ball last fall. Junior D.J. Swearinger, a big hitter, is the new starter at strong safety. He could slide to free safety if necessary.
Spencer Lanning had handled the kicking and punting duties, but he is gone. Senior Jay Wooten, who began his career at North Carolina, is expected to handle the kicking duties; he kicked off for the Gamecocks last season. Redshirt freshman Patrick Fish and junior Joey Scribner-Howard - who began his career at Division II Carson-Newman - are vying for the punting job. Scribner-Howard also could kick if the need arises. Swearinger will be the new kick returner, while Gilmore should handle the punt-return duties. The Gamecocks were mediocre in the return game last season and need an upgrade. The coverage units were adequate last season.
THE RECRUITING SIDE
Average national ranking past five years: 16th
Buzz: South Carolina already had a good class, but when DE Jadeveon Clowney signed two weeks after National Signing Day, the Gamecocks took things up a notch. Or two. The No. 1 overall recruit in the country, Clowney is a difference-maker whom many project will be an opening-day starter. But Clowney wasn't South Carolina's only top-flight recruit. WR Damiere Byrd, DT Phillip Dukes, DB Sheldon Royster and OL Brandon Shell were among a talented group of four-star players the Gamecocks landed in this balanced class. - KEITH NIEBUHR
Big things were expected from Lattimore last season and he delivered. Big things are expected from Clowney this season. Will he deliver, too? Clowney doesn't play a position of need, but someone with his pass-rushing ability is going to get on the field. Cann's play at guard will be important, too. Guard might be the most questionable position on the team.
The Gamecocks open with defense-challenged East Carolina in Charlotte, then things get serious in Week 2 with a trip to Athens to play Georgia in an SEC East showdown. It's not hyperbole to say it could be the biggest game in the division this season. After that are four winnable home games, including a visit from an Auburn team that beat the Gamecocks twice last season. Then comes the season's defining stretch: three consecutive conference road games (Mississippi State, Tennessee and Arkansas). The Gamecocks close with three consecutive home games, including contests with Florida and Clemson. It's a tough schedule but certainly still navigable. Perhaps the best news: The inter-division schedule does not include Alabama or LSU.
For the first time in seemingly forever, big things are expected from the Gamecocks. They won the SEC East last season, their first title of any kind since they won the ACC in 1969. But Spurrier pointed out during the offseason that the division was down last season and that his team merely took advantage. This season, the division is down again and the Gamecocks are the preseason favorite. Lattimore and Jeffery might be the best tailback-wide receiver duo in the nation - at the least, they are in the top three - and the defense is good enough to win the division. But there's the Garcia question: Can he play consistently enough for the Gamecocks to win their second division crown in a row? The thought here is that he will - and so will the Gamecocks.