Our look at the upcoming season of football games began with the season opener against a team from the state on our eastern border. The conference schedule gets going a week later, when we host the non-rival school from the state on our eastern border. Basic info, as if you didn't already know:
Head coach: A loudmouthed wino.
Location: The armpit
Last season: Inexplicably second in the SEC East, again. (Also, 11-2, finished in the top 10 after beating Michigan in the Hall of Fame Bowl).
All time series record: Georgia leads 46-17-2 (The Gamecocks have won the last 3 and 4 of the last 6).
Our SB Nation friends: Garnet and Black Attack
So, what should this year's version of the Roosters from Three Rivers look like this year?
Yep, they only just have the best player in the history of football ever on defense. Because Mark Richt has lost control of Jadeveon Clowney. Seriously, we've played the man twice. He has 6 tackles and 3 sacks, and Georgia has yet to find someone who can block him. #7 for the Gamecocks is right there with some of the most dominant defensive players we've seen in the SEC of late and can disrupt Georgia's offense enough on his own to give his team the win. Mike Bobo, Will Friend, and friends have got to figure out how to keep him at bay so Murray and the rest of the offense has time to work.
And you can't focus all your energy on the planet's most destructive force, because South Carolina has a solid defensive line around him and some excellent athletes in their back 7. Chaz Sutton, a senior out of Savannah, starts on the end opposite Clowney, and he had 5 sacks of his own as a backup last year. Kelcy Quarles adds beef inside, and there will be a competition between senior JT Surratt, and sophomores Phillip Dukes, Gerald Dixon, and Gerald Dixon, Jr. for the other spot on the starting DL. It's a solid unit headlined by Mr. Unstoppable, but with several other big, strong, capable players alongside him.
South Carolina plays a hybrid type of 4-3/4-2-5 under Lorenzo Ward, who will be entering his second season of full control over the Gamecock D (he's been DC for 5 years, but until last year, former Southern Miss head coach and new Auburn DC Ellis Johnson was still calling the shots). It relies on speed in the back 7, and having lost their top 5 linebackers from last year as well as top S DJ Swearinger, so if the front 4 can be blocked, Aaron Murray should be able to find holes in their secondary.
Victor Hampton is a great athlete at CB, but he showed some rough edges in his technique last year. CB Jimmy Legree and S Brison Williams also return with starting experience. The other starters, at both LB spots, FS, and their "Spur" (a LB/S role) will be up for grabs in fall camp. While Hampton and those guys have plenty of speed and playmaking ability, they will have plenty of inexperience back there. So the key for Georgia against this defense is much more easily said than done, block Clowney.
Offensively, the Gamecocks have more question marks. They return 7 starters, including QB Connor Shaw and most of their offensive line. But who will step up at the playmaker positions?
Their offensive line should be stout. AJ Cann returns at one guard, and he's been solid over two seasons as a starter. They also return a pair of massive OTs in 6'8, 330+ Corey Robinson and 6'6, 330+ Brandon Shell. They'll have a new starter at one G spot (a handful of names competing here), and a freshman is expected to line up at C (Cody Waldrop). But Shawn Elliott has been arguably the SEC's best OL coach since he arrived from Appalachian St in 2010, so those guys should be ready to roll when the games start.
Shaw, as well as backup Dylan Thompson, has big game experience, and big game wins under their belt. Thompson is more of your traditional Spurrier QB, a pocket passer that can sling it all over the field. While Shaw is known as much for his legs as his arm. But the senior from Flowery Branch can throw the ball well, as he's completed better than 65% of his passes in each of the last two seasons as a starter, although going deeper into his numbers makes it a bit less impressive. The key parts of Bill C's always wonderful analysis is as follows...
"Nobody threw deep more frequently in this sample than South Carolina's Connor Shaw ...
With Conner Shaw in the game, South Carolina goes either very short or very long; with Dylan Thompson, there's a lot more intermediate passing. "
The primary question with these Chickens will be who gets to run around like their head's been cut off ala Ace Sanders last year. And who handles the heavy load with Marcus Lattimore in the NFL. I'll answer the easier question first.
At RB, former Stephenson HS standout Mike Davis is expected to start. A nice combination of power and speed who gained 275 yards last year looked impressive in limited action after Lattimore went down late last year. His primary competition for the job is fellow sophomore Brandon Wilds, from Blythewood, SC. The thicker back redshirted last year after suffering a nasty ankle injury, but gained almost 500 yards as a true freshman when Lattimore went down in 2011 including 100+ yd efforts against Tennessee and Florida. A highly rated back from Philadelphia, David Williams, could also work his way into the mix as a true freshman after bulking up a bit this summer.
Catching the ball, these aren't your older brothers' Gamecock receivers. There is no big downfield target ala Sidney Rice or Alshon Jeffrey. They are mostly sub 6' speedy guys, with Bruce Ellington as their leading returning pass catcher having led them with 600 yards last season. The 5'9 Ellington splits duties with basketball over the winter but has shown a knack for working both underneath and over the top with his elusiveness. His natural abilities favor a future on the gridiron over the hardwood. But he's also the only man returning who caught at least 20 balls for the 'Cocks last season.
Damiere Byrd, Shaq Roland, Shamir Jeffrey, and Nick Jones are expected to share minutes opposite Ellington, while the staff is extremely high on tall, slender TEs Rory Anderson (out of Powder Springs, GA) and Jerell Adams. Both share similarities to another former Atlanta area Gamecock TE, Jared Cook, being they are tall athletes (6'5+) who are much better as threats in the passing game than blocking for the run.
On special teams, they have a new placekicker in sophomore Landon Ard, and return P Tyler Hull (averaged 39.4 yds per punt last year). In the return game, they have to replace the dynamite Sanders, with Ellington, Byrd, and Hampton the leading candidates after spring.
As usual, the Gamecocks get the added benefit of playing the Thursday night college football season opener on ESPN, hosting North Carolina on the 29th of this month (HOORAY FOOTBALL STARTS THIS MONTH!). That gives them a couple extra days of rest before our game, along with the ability to focus completely on how we look against Clemson, and that little bit more preparation time. The Gamecocks have a few questionable areas, most notably at LB and WR, but they have a player who can make sure you never really notice in Clowney. This game hasn't really decided who represents the SEC East in Atlanta of late, but it is highly regarded as one of the more impactful games of the upcoming season. September 7th, 4:30, in Sanford Stadium or on ESPN, expect a slobber knocker.
My prediction? Give a listen to when I reluctantly went on record for the Half-Cocked Podcast at 38-31 for the good guys.