In a recent column, Skulls and Spurs wrote that
Marcus Lattimore is the most important player on the Gamecocks' roster.
That's undoubtedly true. However, the key to a truly historic season isn't Lattimore: it's QB play.
Lattimore is this team's most important cog. Far more than any other player, he made the difference in USC's transition from a perpetually mediocre to a top-25 team last season. Lattimore makes everyone around him look better, obscuring USC's other ostensible weaknesses. For example, Carolina's offensive line was improved last year, but it wasn't dominant. However, Lattimore's ability to break tackles made our line troubles seem less important than they might have been otherwise. Moreover, you can't underestimate the profound effect a punishing, clock-churning runningback can have on a team's success. Lattimore's ability to control the game on the ground gives our defense extra breath, and it wears out opposing defenses to the extent that they're easy prey at the end of games. For all of these reasons, Lattimore is a unique player who singlehandedly changes this team's outlook. If he stays healthy all season--more likely now that he's bulked up--I have no doubt that we will replicate last season's nine wins, at the very least. If he goes down with a serious, early-season injury, we'll struggle to win eight.
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That said, Carolina's goal this year isn't just to win nine or even ten games. It's to win a program-best 11+ games and bring home an outright SEC Championship from Atlanta. For that to happen, QB play must improve significantly. Our QB is likely, of course, to be Stephen Garcia. Garcia has a career year last season, recording career highs in all major statistical categories other than attempts; in other words, Garcia improved on his yardage and TDs despite throwing less passes. Not bad, right? Unfortunately, Garcia remained somewhat inconsistent. After getting off to a torrid start through the Alabama game, including his career performance against the Tide, Garcia fell off over the latter half of the season. He had good games here and there, but he was inconsistent, giving up too many turnovers in games against Kentucky, Auburn (SECCG), and Florida St. He was particularly inefficient in the games where we needed him most, when Lattimore went down against Kentucky and FSU. In those games, he should have been the hero, the experienced leader who held us up under fire. Instead, he choked. Garcia must learn to combat the pressure consistently. There will come a time when Lattimore either suffers a minor injury or we need Garcia to lead a late come-from-behind drive while we're down. More generally, Garcia needs to improve his footwork--no more throwing off the back foot--and learn to work through his progressions and distribute the ball to our talented group of receivers. Whether or not he can do these things could be the difference between simply replicating last year's nine wins and having a program-best 11 or more wins. In other words, Lattimore can get us to 9 wins; Garcia can take us to true glory. The talent is there for it to happen if Garcia steps up. If Garcia can't do it, we'll have to hope Connor Shaw is ready to. However, as much as I'm pleased to hear about Shaw's progression this fall camp, I still doubt that he's ready to lead us to an SEC Championship. Garcia is the guy we're relying on here.
The other candidate for key to a historic season is secondary play, but I have full confidence that our secondary will be much improved this season. The talent is there, they're more experienced this year, and after we get past the first game, the depth will be there, too. QB I'm not so sure about. Garcia--despite his accomplishments--has disappointed me before, and considering the bumpy off-season he's had, I'm worried he'll burn us again this year. However, word is that Garcia has worked hard practicing and watching film over the off-season, and the players seem to have confidence in him. That means there's hope. We'll get our first peek at a senior Garcia this Saturday.