South Carolina has made it through its first three games and sits at 2-1 overall and 1-1 in league play. In this roundtable discussion, a few members of the GABA braintrust hold forth on what to make of how USC has performed so far.
1. After the first three games, what are your expectations for the rest of the season? How would you gauge success from this point?
Connor: Woof. The Georgia game sure did throw a wrench in our expectations for 2013, didn't it? I think any aspirations of the SEC East have to be pretty much out the window at this point. Sure, it's possible that Georgia finds a way to lose two games somewhere along the way in their SEC schedule, but it's even more likely that South Carolina loses one, whether it's at home against Florida or to one of their opponents in a daunting three-game road trip to Arkansas, Tennessee, and Missouri. Considered individually, the Razorbacks, Volunteers, and Tigers aren't that imposing, but going on the road in the SEC in three consecutive weeks will take its toll. If the Gamecocks can survive that stretch and beat three teams that they ought to beat, they could even lose to Florida and Clemson and still leave me feeling satisfied with this season.
Jorge: Despite South Carolina dropping one of its opening three for the first time since 2009, I'm still quite giddy about what this season may hold. A shootout loss to Georgia in Athens and one bad quarter of special teams play against Vanderbilt isn't enough to rain on this optimist's parade. The Gamecocks are fielding a top-10 caliber offense that hasn't faced any true defensive challenges yet, but early S&P+ returns suggest that, aside from Florida, we may not face any elite defenses in 2013. This bodes well for Connor Shaw and crew that's beginning to make a habit of posting 30+ points a game. Of course, South Carolina's defense has its own issues and special teams is a flat out liability. These factors give me pause, but hopefully our offense can hold down the fort while we find answers elsewhere.
ChickenHoops: I think my expectations haven't changed very much on the whole. Overall, I expect this to be an 8 to 10 win team. I thought the ceiling at the beginning of the year included an undefeated team, but that involved both luck and more improvement from certain areas (namely, LB and special teams) than it appears we'll be getting this year. But if we ended up as an elite team (i.e., top 5-10 in the nation), we had the schedule to go undefeated.
That said, our most likely loss was always the Georgia game, so it doesn't particularly augment what I think this team can accomplish. In short, the offense has picked up a lot of the slack that the defense used to carry in the years past. If that continues, and if the defense and special teams step up as well, we could still yet have a top 10 football team on our hands. And that means we have the chance to win out, though I think it most likely we'll lose at least one more game along the way.
Gamecock Man: My expectations are roughly what they were coming into the season. I thought we would be a 10- or 11-win team then. We've already got one loss under our belts, but it came in what was likely the toughest game all year, a game that most outside observers thought we would lose. After a promising Carolina performance against UNC and UGA's loss to Clemson, I thought we might have what was needed to get out of Athens with a victory, but the game reminded us that we're very young defensively. From here on out, I still feel we have the goods to win eleven games. There are possible losses in the upcoming four-game road trip, against Florida, and against Clemson. That said, if we lose more than two of those games, it would be a major disappointment in my eyes. The key to winning them all will be the maturation of the linebackers and safeties. If we can get at least decent play out of those groups, we could go on a long win streak, in which case the SEC East isn't out of the question depending on how UGA performs. The defensive line is good enough to carry our defense if the other groups do at least part of their jobs.
2. What has been the most pleasant surprise for you so far? What the biggest disappointment?
The most pleasant surprise has been the placekicking, and it's not even close. The offense (and the offensive line, in particular) has finally developed into one of the better units in the SEC, but that's something that could have been reasonably foreseen coming into the year. No one thought that Elliott Freisman was going to come in and lock down the placekicking job and look damn good doing it. When you watch him loft a ball through the uprights, it's hard not to think that he'll have a decent chance at winning a Groza award before his playing days at South Carolina are over. And this is from a true-freshman walk-on.
The biggest disappointment has to be the production of the tight ends. Three games is a relatively small sample, but a lot of people thought that Busta Anderson and Jerrell Adams
might have seasons strong enough to catapult the both of them into early declarations for the NFL Draft
. So far they have combined for 57 yards receiving and zero touchdowns on 6 receptions. Unless they pick up the pace, both will probably be back in the Garnet & Black in 2014.
I spent most of the offseason fending off Connor Shaw haters like a swarm of ninjas in a low budget Kung Fu film. But amidst that flurry of rhetorical roundhouses and footsweeps, I'm not sure even I expected this level of effectiveness from our senior quarterback. Shaw is 20th in the nation in total yards from scrimmage and 33rd in total yards per game, is making better decisions and precious few mistakes. You'll point to the fumble against Georgia, which is virtually his only gaff of the season. Aside from that, he's playing smart, confident football and looking every bit as comfortable as you'd expect a 3rd year SEC starter to be. His supporting cast must be commended—even the weakest link of this offense is pretty strong—but Connor Shaw's
making sure that chain is as flawless and steely as is his gaze during interviews.
I'll reach past that low-hanging special teams fruit (who expected 'em to be all that great, anyway?) and say that I'm a bit disappointed our tight ends haven't been more impactful, at least statistically (I can't say I've watched enough game film to analyze their contributions as blockers.) Busta Anderson and Jerell Adams have combined for just 6 catches, 57 yards and zero touchdowns. I suppose this disappointment is more likely a function of offseason hype, the same way so many are cold on Clowney's output thus far despite him being statistically on par with last season. It's probably a matter of time before Busta or Jerell have a breakout game, but if you'd had shown me our point totals from games 1 through 3, I'd have put money on our tight ends having contributed at least a TD. The silver lining? Statistically lukewarm seasons could convince one or both to stick around for 2014.
Our offense lost a ton in the playmaking department from last year to this year - our two top running backs by yardage (Marcus and Kenny), as well as receiving dynamo Ace Sanders
. While I knew we were returning most of the offensive line, we simply haven't put together a very, very good offense at Carolina since probably the 2006 Blake Mitchell
team (though the 2010 Gamecocks were also very formidable offensively). In each of our first three games, we've averaged over 50 yards per possession, thrown up at least 27 points, and avoided a plague of turnovers. If I told you coming into the season we were going to score at least 27 points in every game, you'd have felt pretty good about our chances, and so would I.
Unfortunately, you and I likely both don't feel quite as good about those chances these days, but that's only partially because of defense. I'm frankly more worried about special teams than anything else we're doing right now. We dominated Vanderbilt both offensively and defensively, but between special teams turnovers and horrific field position (we only started one drive the other side of our own 25), it was a game late. I'm reading too many posts in my opinion that suggest special teams can easily be fixed. If it were easy, we'd have already fixed it. Joe Robinson, Steve Spurrier, and the rest of our coverage and return units need to improve drastically, or we're going to lose at least one game this year based solely on special teams.
I'm most pleasantly surprised by the production of our offense in general. The offense returned a lot of talent from a year ago, but there were also question marks about replacing Marcus Lattimore
and Ace Sanders, whether the offensive line would finally produce, and so forth. Basically, though, everything has clicked. Connor Shaw is having an All-SEC-esque season, although the fact that the SEC has three other elite QBs this year may keep him from making the list. Multiple offensive linemen are likely to make the list. The runningbacks have been great, and the receivers have been more than serviceable, despite the lack of production from what were supposed to be elite tight ends. We've got a legitimately elite offense on our hands, and that should keep us in every game we play this year, not mention entertain us.
The biggest disappointment to me is pass coverage. The only special teams unit that really worries me is kickoff returns, and as long as we don't turn the ball over on returns, our offense is good enough to drive long fields. We knew the linebackers would struggle. However, I really thought our secondary would be strong this year with two good cover corners in Hampton and Legree and one experienced safety in Williams. I hoped that a strong secondary combined with a strong defensive line would make us good enough against the pass to help us weather weak linebacker play. And maybe it will be going forward; certainly, the secondary wasn't the problem against Vandy. But it was just as much of a liability as the linebackers against UGA.
3. Clemson appears to be our toughest remaining game, and despite the loss to Miami, Florida is probably the second toughest. Of the other remaining games, which one worries you the most? Why?
As I mentioned above, the three game road stretch is my biggest concern, but if I have to narrow it down to one game, it has to be next week's game at UCF. Everything about this game suggests that it is going to be an absolute nightmare: a noon
kickoff on the road against a team that is good enough to give us everything we can handle but that's in a weak enough conference that our players and coaches might potentially overlook them. We can salvage a season with losses to Clemson and Florida, but a loss to the Knights will be hard to overcome. George O'Leary has assembled a damn good team in Orlando with a legit NFL prospect at QB in Blake Bortles
Jorge: Let's consider the options. UCF is causing everyone to sweat, but since it's an OOC game I'll reserve my anxiety for more meaningful affairs. I've yet to see anything from Mississippi State or Kentucky that suggests we won't be able to handle them on our own turf. This leaves our October road stretch which takes us from Fayetteville to Knoxville to Other Columbia. Working backwards: Missouri has pasted an FCS team and outlasted Toledo, and will face us on the heels of matchups with Georgia and Florida. It'll be our third consecutive weekend of travel, but Missouri may not be holding up much better at that point. Tennessee will have two weeks to prepare for us coming to town, but if Oregon's firework show was any indication, Tennessee's defense isn't ready to contend with an efficient offense. Arkansas on the road should be a candidate, but that team could be in a dark place when we come to town, having played A&M and Florida weeks prior with Alabama following our game. Still, Fayetteville's not often been kind to us and Arkansas has some young, exciting skill players and as good a defensive line as any. So I guess I'll go with the Hogs, although it's a good sign that no games leap off the page quite like Florida or Clemson.
ChickenHoops: Central Florida. It's really not even close to my mind. Of the seven remaining games, none of our three home games (Mississippi State, Coastal, or Kentucky) strikes any remote fear into my heart. Which leaves the four road games.
Obviously, the Missouri game is more important, in that it'll help keep us in line for a chance at winning the SEC East if Georgia slips up and if we can knock off the Gators in Columbia. And while Mizzou could be troubling, I'm going to wait until they play a better game than the one they put up against Toledo last Saturday, where their two touchdown win was aided by a plus two turnover margin.
On the other hand, we know the Knights are for real. Obviously most Gamecock fans have heard by now about their win in Happy Valley, but they beat an Akron team on the road 38-7 that went into the Big House and nearly beat Michigan. Now I don't believe in the transitive property of scores to that extent, but their other win was a 38-0 win over Florida International. Neither of those teams are very good, but one thing we know in all areas of sports is that good teams blow out bad teams, and average teams struggle in those games. Between the two blowout wins and the victory over Penn State, there's no doubt in my mind that UCF is a very good football team. They have a bye week to prepare for us, they'll have an amped up stadium pumped to add a second BCS scalp, and we'd better be ready to play if we expect to walk out of there with a win.
Gamecock Man: Coming into the season, I would have said one of the games in the conference road trip against Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mizzou. However, none of those teams have shown clear signs that they're better than a year ago, and Tennessee might be worse, considering that they no longer have a dynamic offense to balance the awful defense. Out of the three, Mizzou probably scares me the most, because they have enough offensive firepower to cause fits for our struggling defense.
The game that's really got me missing sleep at night right now, though, is Central Florida. Like Mizzou, the Knights have some serious offensive talent, and they have some momentum on their side after beating Penn St. The other thing they have is nothing to lose, whereas we have everything to lose and little to gain from this game. The thought of us coming out lethargic in this game while UCF is playing loose in front of an amped crowd is frightening. Hopefully, with what should be a gimme league game at home against Kentucky the following week, our coaches will really circle this game and will impress upon our players what kind of team UCF has and how tough this game will be.