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Team countdown: No. 8 South Carolina

Steve Spurrier did great things as coach at Duke (the Blue Devils won the ACC title in 1989) and at Florida (he led the Gators to their first national title in 1996). He also is doing great things at South Carolina.

Last season, the Gamecocks won 11 games for the first time in their history; that came on the heels of an SEC East title in 2010, the first championship of any kind for South Carolina since the team won the ACC crown in 1969.

In addition, last season was just the second time in school history the Gamecocks won at least 10 games, and their 20 victories in the past two seasons is the school's best two-year mark.

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Steve Spurrier is working his magic at South Carolina. (AP)

This season, the Gamecocks are our pick to win the SEC East. The biggest positive for South Carolina is the makings of a dominant defensive line with DEs Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor and DT Kelcy Quarles.

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Another positive is that for the first time since he was at Florida, Spurrier goes into a season comfortable with his starting quarterback. Connor Shaw isn't an overly gifted passer, but he is steady – something predecessor Stephen Garcia most assuredly was not.

The particulars

Last season: 11-2 overall, 6-2 in SEC (2nd in SEC East)
Coach: Steve Spurrier (55-35, 8th season at South Carolina; 197-75-2, 23rd season overall)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (7) – G A.J. Cann, TE Justice Cunningham, C T.J. Johnson, TB Marcus Lattimore, WR Ace Sanders, QB Connor Shaw, FB Dalton Wilson. Defense (5) – LB Reginald Bowens, SS DeVonte Holloman (moving to OLB/S), FS D.J. Swearinger, E Devin Taylor, LB Shaq Wilson. Special teams (0) – None.
Fast fact: Spurrier could become the winningest coach in school history this fall; he has 55 victories, nine behind Rex Enright (64 from 1938-55).

Offense

The health of junior TB Marcus Lattimore is of utmost importance. He played in seven games last season before suffering a torn ACL; he still rushed for 818 yards and 10 TDs. That gives Lattimore 2,015 yards and 27 TDs in his first two seasons. Lattimore also is a good receiver.

For all the talk about how Spurrier loves to air it out, he hasn't been afraid to ride a workhorse back; some of his best teams at Florida featured TBs Errict Rhett and Fred Taylor. Lattimore definitely will be the focal point of the Gamecocks' offense. Senior Kenny Miles and sophomore Brandon Wilds are capable backups, and they give Spurrier some flexibility.

Shaw completed 65.4 percent of his passes last season, a number that had to warm Spurrier's heart. Shaw, who began the season as the No. 2 quarterback before becoming the starter in Game 4, also tossed 14 TD passes. He certainly won't wow any opponent with his arm, but he's a heady guy who understands the offense and also has running ability.

The biggest question offensively centers on the go-to receiver – as in, "Who will be that guy?" Alshon Jeffery, who was underutilized last season because of the quarterback switch, left for the NFL a year early. Junior Ace Sanders, who is 5 feet 8, likely becomes Shaw's main target. Sanders is dangerous in the slot and has the speed to get deep. He and backup Bruce Ellington give Spurrier and his offensive staff some shifty weapons with which to work. But who else will emerge as a target for Shaw? Speedy sophomore Damiere Byrd is one candidate, as are senior D.L. Moore (at 6-5, the Gamecocks' most physical receiver) and junior DeAngelo Smith. Highly touted true freshman Shaq Roland, the No. 10 receiver and No. 66 overall player nationally in the recruiting class, will get an opportunity for ample playing time.

TE Justice Cunningham could become a more important part of the offense this season. He is a good blocker but showed consistent hands last season.

Senior C T.J. Johnson should contend for all-league honors, and he and sophomore G A.J. Cann form a strong interior duo. But those are the only two returning starters along the line. There are high hopes for redshirt freshman T Brandon Shell, a great-nephew of NFL Hall of Famer Art Shell. The other tackle is expected to be one of two sophomores, Cody Gibson or Mike Matulis; both made four starts last season. The new starter at guard should be junior Ronald Patrick, a good run blocker. Depth is a concern across the line.

Defense

Coordinator Ellis Johnson left to become coach at Southern Miss, and Lorenzo Ward, who was cornerback coach last season, was promoted to replace Johnson. Look for him to perhaps even be more aggressive than Johnson, which is hard to do. The Gamecocks still will use a 4-2-5 set, with one of the starters in the secondary called the "spur," a hybrid outside linebacker/safety.

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Ward has an excellent duo at end in Clowney and Taylor. Clowney, the No. 1 player nationally in the 2011 signing class, had eight sacks last season as a true freshman, basically on athleticism alone. He has a better grasp of the position this season, and should wind up with double-digit sacks. He is incredibly athletic and has a great first step off the edge. Taylor, a senior, will be a four-year starter. He had six sacks last season and steadily has gotten better against the run. Junior backup Chaz Sutton has some pass-rush ability, too.

Quarles, a sophomore, is a rising star at tackle. Senior Byron Jerideau, who might be the strongest player in program history, should line up next to Quarles. None of the backups are proven, though.

The Gamecocks have five senior linebackers, so there are experienced players to choose from. Seniors Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens are returning starters. Wilson missed 2010 with an injury and returned last fall with a solid season; he is a certain starter. Bowens is vying with senior Damario Jeffery for the other starting job.

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The starter at the "spur" position will be senior DeVonte Holloman, a big hitter who is a former starting safety. He will be trying to replace Antonio Allen, who had a fabulous season in 2011 (team-leading 88 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions).

FS D.J. Swearinger is a returning starter and was second on the team with 80 tackles. He is heading into his third season as a starter and could contend for all-league honors. Replacing Holloman at strong safety will be sophomore Brison Williams, who battled back from a broken arm early last season and played well down the stretch.

The Gamecocks lost both starting corners. But one of the new starters actually is a former starter. Senior Akeem Auguste redshirted last season because of a foot injury that cost him all but one game. He started at corner in 2009 and at free safety in 2010. Auguste has started 19 times in his career but has zero interceptions. The other corner should be sophomore Victor Hampton, who played a lot last season. Junior Jimmy Legree, who made two starts last fall, is another who will be in the mix.

Special teams

The Gamecocks are looking for a new kicker and a new punter.

Senior Adam Yates, who hasn't played since serving as the Gamecocks' kickoff specialist in 2009, redshirt freshman Landon Ard and true freshman Nick St. German are the candidates at kicker. Junior Mike Williamson, a transfer from Columbia, and sophomore Patrick Fish will battle for the punting job.

Sanders (punt) and Ellington (kickoff) are good return specialists.

The punt coverage was fine last season, but the kickoff coverage needs improvement.

Schedule

The Gamecocks play four of their first six at home, but they still have a tough first month. They open against what should be a solid Vanderbilt team in Nashville, then meet Missouri at home Sept. 22. Game 6 is a huge SEC East showdown with Georgia on Oct. 6. The Gamecocks have won two in a row over the Bulldogs.

The entire October schedule is a tough one. After meeting Georgia, the Gamecocks play LSU (road), Florida (road) and Tennessee (home), and their first game in November is a visit from Arkansas. The regular-season finale is at archrival Clemson.

Overview

The Gamecocks have a much tougher SEC schedule than Georgia, but the Bulldogs don't have Lattimore, who is the key to the Gamecocks' division title hopes.

In the past, with a schedule like this, there would be a lot of reasons to doubt South Carolina. But the Gamecocks are used to winning now, and Shaw's presence at quarterback should mean far fewer mental and physical mistakes at that position.

This is a good team. Is it a great team? The potential is there. Anything less than nine wins would be a disappointment, and it's within reason that South Carolina wins 11 and returns to the SEC title game for the second time in three seasons.

The recruiting side

Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 19th nationally
The buzz: Spurrier and his staff assembled another top-20 class in 2012. The Gamecocks continue to amass high-level talent, and that is evident with some of the offensive players headed for Columbia. Stone Mountain (Ga.) Stephenson four-star RB Mike Davis and Lexington (S.C.) High four-star WR Shaq Roland lead the class on the offensive side of the ball. Roland is the fourth consecutive South Carolina "Mr. Football" to sign with the Gamecocks. Defensively, two safeties – Cape Coral (Fla.) Island Coast four-star recruit Jordan Diggs and College Park (Ga.) Banneker four-star signee Chaz Elder – are the standouts. – Rivals.com

Breakthrough player

WR Ace Sanders. The Gamecocks are looking for a new go-to receiver, and Sanders looks ready to play the part. He is speedy and shifty, a great fit for the slot. Sanders is not the biggest guy (5-8/175), but he is unafraid to go across the middle and can turn a short pass into a long gain. His speed makes him a matchup problem for linebackers and safeties. Look for Spurrier to try to get him the ball in other ways, too.

For more on South Carolina throughout the season, check out GamecockCentral.com

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