It's an off week, so Jorge, Connor, ChickenHoops, and I hold forth below on some general topics regarding the Gamecocks' season. Dear readers, we encourage you to offer your own thoughts on these topics in the comments section.
1. How would you rate the Gamecocks' performance so far this year? Killing it? Meeting expectations? Abysmal failure? Why?
Connor: Coming into the year, just about everyone thought the Gamecocks would have a strong offense and a defense with a young back seven that would need to round into form in order for South Carolina to achieve its most important goals. That is almost exactly what has happened. The only major disappointment has been the loss to Tennessee, but most also thought it was pretty reasonable that the Gamecocks would drop one of its three consecutive SEC road games in the month of October. The only surprise is that it came to Tennessee, not Missouri.
For those reasons, I'm going to say that the Gamecocks have met expectations to this point in the season.
Expectations are a funny thing, because every fan approaches them differently. You've got your number monkeys, your hype suckers, your eyeballers. Me? I'm not smart enough to be the first, I like to think I'm not susceptible to being the second (even though I am), and I probably default to the latter because, you know, it's easiest. To wit: my heart felt we could run the table, but my brain reasoned that we'd suffer 2-3 losses by the time the season was over. And in some darker moments, I wondered if the Clowney Effect hadn't caused us to become so overrated that we'd get blasted out of the top 25 in three weeks' time. But, oddly enough, not much has surprised me about this season from a wide angle perspective. If you'd told me two months ago that, nine games in, we'd be 7-2 with a hardfought loss to Georgia and an inexcusable loss to a bottomfeeder, I'd say, "Yeah, sounds about right." If you'd told me we'd be in the throes of a messy SEC East race, I'd say, "Sure, I believe it." We've looked invincible at times and a mess at others—considering the amount of newcomers on defense and special teams, that's not all that farfetched. Lest I seem too cocky, I'll admit I certainly didn't see us outlasting a top 5 team on the road in double overtime...even if Our Digital Season did
Coming into the season I figured we'd lose one of UGA, UCF, UF, as well as one of three out of the road trip. I then thought we'd potentially take a third loss from one of those other games, UCF, or Clemson. We played a pretty tough schedule, and it looked to be even harder before the season started.
So 7-2, with what appears to be 9-3 as a floor? It's hard not to be OK with that. I still look at the road trip as a fair representation for what we deserved - we played two tight games and won one of them. That's unfortunate in a way, but not unfair.
Coming into this season, I remember thinking we had the schedule but may not have the defense. That's the way it's played out, by and large, though the Tennessee loss was due to underperformance by every unit on the team.
Gamecock Man: Based on my preseason thoughts, I'd say we're slightly below expectations. I thought this would be an 11-1 regular season, not so much because I thought we were a top-five caliber team, but rather because the schedule shaped up nicely. We simply shouldn't have lost to Tennessee; in a couple of years, they'll probably again be a solid program, but this year, they've lost several games by large margins. They're simply not there yet, but due to uneven offense and poor special teams play, we managed to drop the game to them, which is very disappointing. That said, before the season began, I (and no one outside the other Columbia) expected Mizzou to be as good as it's been, and if I had, I would have projected a loss on the road in that game. The fact that we managed to pull out a road win over a top-five team mitigates against the loss to Tennessee, so I can't be too hard on us. What's more, given the chaos in the East this year, there's still a lot to play for with a solid chance to make it back to Atlanta. I didn't think we'd have that chance when we lost to Georgia, so that also mitigates against the loss to Tennessee. Of course, it very well may be that loss to Tennessee that costs us the opportunity to take advantage of an Eastern Division that was there for the taking.
2. The Gamecocks are in the running to make the SEC Championship Game, but they may have a better chance of playing in the Sugar Bowl if they win out but don't win the East. Let's assume that Carolina loses to Alabama in Atlanta if we make it. Would you rather see Carolina go to Atlanta, lose, and play in another Capital One or Outback Bowl, or win out, miss Atlanta, and get the at-large bid to the Sugar Bowl? Why?
Connor: I stopped reading this question after the second clause. I would rather lose 5,000-0 in the SEC Championship Game and play in the BBVA Compass Bowl than not win the East and get an invite to the Sugar Bowl. Winning the SEC East should be our primary objective until such point that we expect to win it every single season.
I acknowledge that this point of view may be irrational and could possibly be disproven by a well-researched, scientific study extolling the economic and public relations benefits of an appearance in a BCS bowl.
I. don't. care.
Part of coming of age as a South Carolina fan in the late 90s and early 2000s means having an unhealthy fixation on asserting oneself as superior to the likes of Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee after decades of heart-breaking losses and blowouts and people just completely forgetting to mention (or intentionally excluding) South Carolina in preseason previews as a team that could make it to Atlanta.
I know the premise of this question involves the Gamecocks losing in the SECCG, but chance of winning the conference championship, however unlikely, is worth whatever cost is associated with not going to a BCS game. Forever emblazoned in my memory is how LSU made it to Atlanta with a 5-3 conference record in 2001, found a way to beat Tennessee, and has been regarded as a national football power ever since.
Jorge: I'm going Sugar Bowl. In this, the last year of the BCS system, it'd be nice to lay claim to at least a single appearance in one of the major bowls. Granted, a Championship Game win (no matter how unlikely) would usher us into a BCS bowl, but the criteria here included a loss to Alabama. It'd look a lot better to sneak into a BCS game than it would to serve as Alabama's regular season victory lap.
Chicken Hoops: You play for championships, and winning the East is a championship. Despite that, the SEC Championship Game is simply a bigger deal - last year, over 20 million people tuned in. Less than half that number watch the Sugar Bowl, because while it's of course an interesting game, there's nothing at stake. Being on the same field as Alabama, playing for a championship, gives us credibility in a way that a BCS game might not, especially if the Sugar has to take Northern Illinois.
Gamecock Man: I would take the SECCG. Winning championships is the ultimate goal, and even if we lose in the SECCG, we can claim an Eastern Division title if we make it to Atlanta. For a program with so few championships over its history, another Eastern Division title would mean the world. It gives our coaches more ammo in recruiting wars against the traditional Big Three than an at-large bid in the Sugar Bowl ever would. The fact that we've never played in a BCS bowl makes the Sugar enticing, but frankly, some of the BCS bowls in past years have been lackluster in comparison to the bowls we've been playing in. I think everyone knows by this point that getting an at-large bid to a BCS bowl doesn't necessarily mean a team is better than a team playing in the Capital One bowl. Would Georgia have preferred to have been in Florida's spot last year? That's a rhetorical question, of course.
3. Other than Jadeveon Clowney, which underclassman do you feel is most likely to declare for the NFL Draft? (Question was posed before revelation that Kelcy Quarles has already decided to go pro.)
Connor: Largely because of the attention Clowney receives from opposing offenses, Kelcy Quarles has been able to 7 sacks and 11 TFL, which are pretty insane numbers for an interior defensive lineman. Keep in mind: Quarles could have entered the NFL draft last season because, despite being a true sophomore at the time, he was three years removed from high school after spending a year at Fork Union.
Clowney will not in Columbia in 2014, and if Quarles sticks around, he will likely enjoy the kind of season that Clowney is in 2013: technically disruptive but ceding statistical production to less talented or experienced teammates who aren't being gameplanned away from by opposing offenses.
Jorge: As of Wednesday, Kelcy Quarles' departure was made unofficially official. There's been some quiet chatter about Corey Robinson possibly declaring, but it's gotta be Vic Hampton, right? As a fourth year junior who's coming on strong down the stretch, Vic's got to feel like his time has come. And why not? The kid's come a long way since being temporarily dismissed from the program as a troubled freshman. Go get that paper, Bandit. Now, who wants to play cornerback?
ChickenHoops: From everything I've heard, Vic Hampton is gone. And we'll miss him like crazy.
I'm going with Victor Hampton
, who has reportedly already decided he's on his way out. Hampton is a very solid NFL prospect who has the potential to be a shutdown corner. A strong finish to 2013 could catapult him into the high rounds. Corey Robinson could potentially go sooner than Hampton if Robinson declares, but there's not been as much smoke from Robinson's camp.
4. Offensive MVP to this point: Connor Shaw or Mike Davis?
Part of what has made Mike Davis so effective in 2013 is the uncertainty about whether it will be Shaw or Davis running the football out of the backfield. This creates a mathematical advantage for the South Carolina offense and helps create the opportunities for Davis to break off the big runs for which he has become so famous. Davis has still been pretty effective when Thompson is in the game, but the offensive as a whole has ground to a halt more often than it does with Connor Shaw at the helm.
There is no better illustration of Connor Shaw's
importance than the Missouri game. The Gamecocks found themselves in third- or fourth-and-long on numerous occasions, but Shaw somehow found a way to pull it out every time. And on the third down that preceded Spurrier's infamous double-timeout in Tennessee on fourth-and-two, Dylan Thompson rolled out on a bootleg with a run/throw option that Connor Shaw likely would have been able to pick up had he not been injured on the previous series.
I'm really struggling with this one. Mike Davis leads the SEC in rushing and hasn't had less than 100 yards from scrimmage in a game yet this season. Connor Shaw has an 18/1 TD/INT ratio and is 4th in the conference in QB rating (fun fact: he'd be second in the ACC, only trailing Jameis Winston
). I'm going to go with Shaw only because a.) his heroics in ColaWest shined a bit brighter than Mike's, and b.) I think Shaw's experience and command of the offense are of slightly more value to the team's greater good. But slip me a fiver and I'll gladly flip flop.
ChickenHoops: Give me Davis - it's not that I don't think Connor is better than Dylan or that he hasn't been a huge part of our offense, but especially with the Wilds injury, I'm not sure where this team is without Mike Davis. He's the best running back in the SEC this year, and while I love Connor, you can't say he's the best QB in the SEC. So both objectively (better player) and subjectively (most important to Carolina), I think Davis wins this case.
I'm going with Connor. Mike Davis is an amazing back, but tailbacks tend to be more replaceable than quarterbacks. Even granting that we have a solid backup QB in Dylan Thompson
, I feel the team would struggle more without Shaw than it would without Davis. Our offense has played discernibly worse when Shaw hasn't been in the game, whereas Brandon Wilds
gets similarly strong production to Davis at tailback, and even Shon Carson
has been coming along as an adequate backup during Wilds's injury. Not just is Connor a more effective player than Dylan, but Connor is also the heart and soul of this team, a player the rest of the guys seem to rally around. Shaw seems to mean more to this team, in my opinion.
5. What's your personal opinion regarding how the rest of the season plays out? Do the Gamecocks win out? Do they make it to Atlanta? Where do they go bowling?
Connor: The Gamecocks will win out, but they will not make it to Atlanta, unless they do so in the capacity of representing the SEC in the Chick-fil-a Bowl. Missouri needs to lose to Ole Miss or Texas A&M, and Georgia needs to lose to Auburn. I see one of these scenarios happening, but not both.
Jorge: Of our remaining legitimate opponents (let's just ignore that Coastal's 9-0), South Carolina has the best combined F/+ rating (17, compared to Clemson at 23 and Florida at 33). Of course, those aren't cavernous divides and I think we're capable of losing to either if we're plagued by any of the demons that have cost us points and games throughout the first 75% of the season. But Florida seems to have angered some Pagan injury deity, while we all know Clemson's had their struggles with middling ACC opponents like Maryland and BC (while, yes, blowing others out.) Still, I refuse to cite, "We've got them at home" and "It's senior day so our boys will be hungry" as hard evidence, since I'm guessing Clemson fans were spouting that same sort of rhetoric this time last year. Interesting to note that, based on S&P ratings, Clemson's offense has regressed and defense has improved from last season, while the opposite is true for us (offense up, defense down). Will these complementary shifts offset? Of course, our special teams ratings are abysmal—FEI ST ratings put us at 117th, including dead last in punt return efficiency. Sidestepping the sort of special teams ineptitude that nearly cost us Kentucky and Vanderbilt and did cost us Tennessee will go a long way in helping us sweep the final stretch of the 2013 campaign. We proved we can (mostly) avoid those pitfalls against MSU and we all know a team's only as good as its most recent game*, so, hell, why not? 10-2 or bust!
* Obviously, I don't believe this is to be true...I just like to make Chicken Hoops' blood pressure spike.
ChickenHoops: I think it's likely that we're going to win out, and it's going to be really hard to be disappointed with 10-2, but we're going to be, because either UGA will beat Auburn or Missouri will win out. Remember - if UGA wins, then we're done no matter what else happens. Right now, the markets and advanced statistics suggest UGA has about a 35% chance of winning, which means in 35% of all scenarios we're done. So in the remaining 65% of scenarios, let's say Missouri wins out half the time or so - that puts us at about 2:1 underdogs to get to Atlanta. Can it happen? Sure. But I'm trying not to depend on it happening to be happy with this year, because it's out of our control.
In this scenario, I still think we miss out on the BCS because I'll be shocked if the Sugar Bowl passes up an available LSU (tickets) or A&M (eyeballs). Right now we just don't have the cache as a program I feel like to get the call, though Clowney obviously could help that. So I'll suggest it'll be one of the CapOne, Outback, or Chick-fil-A Bowl. It's frustrating to think we could go 10-2 in three straight years and not see Atlanta, but it seems that's where we're headed.
Gamecock Man: I think Carolina will win out. We'll be substantial favorites hosting a struggling Florida team, and while Clemson is likely to give us a good game, I think our improving defense will shut down Tajh Boyd and company and we'll score enough points to win a hard-fought game.
As far as making Atlanta goes, I'm optimistic. There's a solid chance that Mizzou will drop one to Ole Miss or Texas A&M. The Georgia-Auburn game is the one I'm not sure about. Georgia is getting healthier, and the jury is still out on Auburn. They've obviously achieved an impressive turnaround, but they really only have two good wins, at home over a good-but-not-great Ole Miss and at A&M. I'm not sure how much to make of their win over A&M. Almost every A&M game has been a shootout, and someone was bound to make enough plays to beat the Aggies sooner or later. Still, the game is at Auburn, and with Auburn having lost big to Georgia several times in recent years, you have to imagine that Malzahn understands the gravity of the opportunity to turn this rivalry around and will have his guys playing their best ball. If Auburn wins, I think we get to Atlanta.
If we don't go to Atlanta, I'm not optimistic we got to the Sugar Bowl. It seems more likely than not that either Auburn or Texas A&M will be available, and I doubt the Sugar picks us over either of those programs. Still, there's a chance.