Dr. Saturday will be looking at the 25 most interesting teams headed into spring football through March, examining which programs have the biggest questions, the most expectations and the best storylines. This isn’t a list of the 25 best teams going into the spring, just the 25 we’re keeping the closest eye on. Previously this week: Notre Dame, Texas, Oklahoma, Stanford.
What happened in 2012
South Carolina had the greatest disappointing season one could imagine.
The Gamecocks had two losses all season: at LSU, which was No. 9 at the time, and the next week at Florida, which was No. 2 at the time. The LSU loss was by two points. The Florida game was a blowout, but still, there's no shame in losing at either of those stadiums.
For this, the Gamecocks got third place in their division and a trip to the Outback Bowl, which is behind the BCS Championship Game (a SEC given at this point), Sugar Bowl and Capital One Bowl in the SEC bowl pecking order, and considered equal with the Cotton Bowl.
An 11-win season with victories against Clemson, Michigan, Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas would generally be a season to reminisce about for many years. The Gamecocks probably would have been a runaway champion in any conference but one. Its final ranking in the coaches poll was No. 7, the best in school history. Yet the 2012 season for a really talented South Carolina team seemed just a little empty, with no division title, no conference title and a good but not great bowl game. The good news for the Gamecocks is they'll still be loaded in 2013, and can make a run at a division title and maybe more.
What makes them interesting in 2013
We all know the reason they're going to be one of the most watched teams in college football this year, but we'll get to him in a moment. This team is much more than a one-man show, anyway.
South Carolina brings back 36 lettermen and 12 starters, a lot of talent and experience on both lines and a couple of capable quarterbacks. There are some question marks, particularly at the offensive skill positions, but the foundation for this team is pretty strong.
What really makes this team unique is that there are just four scholarship seniors on the roster. True, the best player isn't a senior but will be the top pick of the 2014 NFL draft, but overall this is a team that should be in the mix for a SEC title and returns just about everyone for 2014 as well. Coach Steve Spurrier has done a tremendous job building the program.
What needs to happen this spring
The team needs to find some players to step into bigger roles at running back and receiver. Marcus Lattimore and Kenny Miles, the Gamecocks' two top tailbacks last year, are gone. Ace Sanders, South Carolina's dynamic receiver, left early for the pros. Bruce Ellington, who moonlights as a point guard for the hoops team, returns and his veteran presence is a huge boost for the offense.
Damiere Byrd, a speedster who is also a member of South Carolina's track team, averaged 26.1 yards on 14 catches last year, and will need to develop into a complete receiver. Nick Jones had just 12 catches last year, but seven came in the final two games, so he might be emerging too. None of those three receivers is taller than 5-9, which could be an issue. Mike Davis, Brandon Wilds and Kendric Salley are listed as the top three tailbacks by the team. Davis, a highly-touted recruit in the 2012 class, got some more playing time after Lattimore's knee injury last year, with mixed results. The coaches need to get a bit of clarity about their tailbacks in the spring.
Jadeveon Clowney is the most hyped defensive player to return for another season of college football in a long time. Most defensive players who had the season he did last year are off to the NFL, but Clowney isn't eligible to go yet. He changes the entire plan for opposing offenses, who have to be aware of him every play. Without extra attention, this could happen:
In the two months after that legendary hit, the YouTube clip was viewed more than 3.2 million times. Only one defense in college football can boast of having the surefire top pick in next year's NFL draft, and it's South Carolina.
The quarterback competition between Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson is intriguing. When Shaw was banged up last year, Thompson played very well. He had 10 touchdowns and two interceptions, including a last second touchdown to beat Michigan in the Outback Bowl. And when Shaw was healthy last year, he played very well. He completed 67.5 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions last season. Shaw is out for the spring after foot surgery, and Thompson will benefit from more snaps in practice.
Spurrier likes using multiple quarterbacks, mostly because he's benching someone who is struggling, so it's likely both quarterbacks factor in the 2013 season. Thompson has a great chance to stake his claim to a larger role with a good spring. We'd say the team would be better off if one quarterback emerged as the clear starter, but Spurrier has done fine with the quarterback shuffle before.
Aug. 29 vs. North Carolina
Sept. 7 at Georgia
Nov. 16 vs. Florida
Nov. 30 vs. Clemson