Post-Spring Previews: Florida Atlantic

After a tough opening stretch, the Gamecocks get a slight breather when they host Florida Atlantic in the home opener. While they're not NC State or UGA, the Owls aren't exactly a cupcake; the team won the Sun Belt in 2007 and played in the New Orleans Bowl in 2007 and the Motor City Bowl in 2008, winning both. The Owls are coached by the legendary Howard Schnellenberger, who won a national title at Miami in the early 1980s. While we should be able to beat them comfortably, this team won't be a total pushover and is capable of pulling off an upset if we don't show up. They'll certainly be looking to make a splash with a victory.

Let's take a look at how we stack up against the Owls.

Offense

Quarterback

The Owls--who ranked 25th in the country in passing offense last year--have a prolific, experienced senior quarterback in Rusty Smith, who threw for 3224 yards with a rating of 127.8 last season. While Smith's statistics are somewhat inflated because Florida Atlantic has been a pass-first team with Smith under center, his success cannot be ignored. However, it is worth noting that his performance dipped last year after a fabulously successful 2007 campaign in which he had a 141.6 rating and a 32-9 TD-INT ratio. All of this said, I think that Stephen Garcia is more talented and has more potential than Smith, who has racked up most of his gaudy stats against other Sun Belt teams. Let's not forget that in 2007 Smith threw for almost 1000 more yards on the year than Tim Tebow, but when the Gators faced the Owls, it was Tebow racking up the yards. Garcia has a bit of work to do before he approaches Tebow status, but the point still holds: Garcia gets a slight edge here.

Verdict: Slight advantage South Carolina

Running Backs

The Owls are not a running team, and they lose their top two backs from a year ago, Charles Pierre and DiIvory Edgecomb, to graduation. That doesn't bode well for them in a game in which they'll be taking on what will likely be the toughest defensive front they'll see all season. Carolina, on the other hand, should field a much improved rushing attack next year; Gamecocks get the edge here.

Verdict: Strong advantage South Carolina

Receivers and Tight Ends

The Owls return an experienced, proven receiving core. The go-to guy is receiver Cortez Gent, but in addition the Owls have a set of talented tight ends to throw to. However, while the passing game is a strength for Florida Atlantic, I still feel like we just have more talent here.

Verdict: Slight advantage South Carolina

Offensive Line

The Owls return their left tackle Levoris Williams, who did a good job protecting Smith's blind side last season, and overall should have a serviceable unit. However, while our line was a liability last year, it should be much better this year, and should at least be better than Florida Atlantic's.

Verdict: Slight advantage South Carolina

Defense

The Owls lose a ton on defense this year, having to replace 8 starters from a defense that was already the team's liability. This means that this could be a breakout game statistically for our offense.

Defensive Line

The Owls lose star defensive tackle Jervonte Jackson from a line that was already so-so at best. The Owls had trouble defending the run and generating pressure against top competition last year, and this year they project to have the same issues. Whether it be Garcia scrambling or our tailback-by-committee unit running the ball, the Gamecocks should be able to rack up serious yards on the ground against this team. We have a strong advantage here.

Verdict: Strong advantage South Carolina

Linebackers

Same story here. The Owls lost some players from a unit that wasn't great last year, leaving major questions coming into this year. Another big advantage for us.

Verdict: Strong advantage South Carolina

Defensive Backfield

The Owls return their most defensive experience at secondary, including Tavious Polo, who has eight interceptions over the past two years. Moreover, their recruiting class features some good pickups at this position. All in all, this is the Owls' defensive strength this year, but despite the question mark in the defensive backfield this year for Carolina, I still feel confident saying we have a sizeable advantage here. That said, I think it would be best for our offense to try to pound it against these guys to avoid playing to their strengths.

Verdict: Strong advantage South Carolina

Special Teams

The Owls graduate their placekicker, Warley Leroy, so there are some questions regarding whether they can find someone to adequately replace him. That job might go to Ross Gornall, who got a little action last season. In the return game, they'll need to improve returning kickoffs but had a lot of success with Polo returning punts. The coverage units were solid. While we have our own questions at placekicker, our overall talent and speed edge in the return games should give us the advantage here.

Verdict: Slight advantage South Carolina

Head Coaches

Steve Spurrier has become known as a guy that gave up a sweet gig at Florida to (via a short stop in the NFL) coach at the unforgiving task that is South Carolina football. Spurrier says he enjoys the challenge of Carolina, the job of doing something nobody has done before. If that's what drives him, he may be meeting a kindred spirit in Schnellenberger. Schnellenberger's career, to say the least, has been an odd one. Schnellenberger revived a struggling Miami program in the mid-80s by installing a pass-first offense and effectively recruiting South Florida. In 1983, he won an improbable national title by upsetting top-ranked Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. After an abortive jump to the USFL, Schnellenberger began his own errand into the wilderness when he took over a struggling Louisville program. After building that program up in the late 80s and early 90s, he headed to Oklahoma to coach the Sooners for one year, which was a failure. After resigning unexpectedly after his first season in Norman, he worked in the financial sector for a few years before taking over at Florida Atlantic, where he once again built the program up from almost nothing to where it is today. The guy has had a strange career, but, his Oklahoma stint notwithstanding, he's a had a successful one. Even though he's 75--he played at Kentucky under Bear Bryant in the early 50s!--it would be difficult to say that he doesn't have it anymore. Of course, many similar things could be said of Spurrier, making this an interesting coaching matchup.

Verdict: Push

Overall

The Owls' offense worries me a bit. If his line can protect him against Eric Norwood and our pass rush, I think Smith and his receiving corp will be able to pick up yards in the air against our young secondary. However, this team's defense is going to be bad even by mid-major standards, so even if the Owls' manage to keep it within a couple of touchdowns for most of the game, eventually they're just not going to be able to keep up with us. Expect a questionable defense performance but a convincing win in the end for the 'Cocks.

Prediction: South Carolina wins by 3-5 touchdowns

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