Gamecock football: best in the country?

The Gamecock special teams spent too much of the season on the wrong end of plays like this. - Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

According to one computer model, if you set aside special teams, the Gamecocks were the best team in college football this season.

If you had to list only two things I regularly posted about during football season in my first year here at GABA, you could easily choose (1) advanced statistics; and (2) special teams. They make sense: the first is because it's something that really interests me, the second because it's a hidden area of the game where the Gamecocks have underachieved for years, and which has likely cost them trips to the SEC Championship Game in both 2011 and 2013.

I'll go back and update this post about our special teams struggles under Spurrier at some point this offseason, but it became newly relevant today when Brian Fremeau of the excellent Football Outsiders website posted his final FEI numbers for the year. South Carolina came in an excellent sixth place to finish the season, not far away from its fourth-place finish in the AP and Coaches' Poll.

But what happens when you strip out special teams from the formula, and weigh only offensive and defensive FEI? Well, what happens is this:

OFEI + DFEI Rk Team FEI Rk OFEI Rk DFEI Rk STE Rk
1.164 1 South Carolina 0.257 6 0.696 2 -0.468 11 -2.201 114
1.154 2 Stanford 0.311 2 0.412 22 -0.742 1 3.352 2
1.152 3 Florida State 0.319 1 0.499 12 -0.653 5 1.343 27
1.114 4 Oklahoma State 0.245 9 0.397 24 -0.717 3 -0.451 85
1.106 5 Alabama 0.289 3 0.551 9 -0.555 7 3.457 1
1.061 6 Auburn 0.271 4 0.586 7 -0.475 10 2.184 7
1.034 7 Oregon 0.254 7 0.612 4 -0.422 16 1.379 26
1.000 8 Michigan State 0.252 8 0.267 33 -0.733 2 1.292 29
0.984 9 Arizona State 0.239 10 0.597 6 -0.387 22 0.225 60
0.966 10 Missouri 0.263 5 0.437 18 -0.529 8 0.085 65
0.957 11 USC 0.184 20 0.314 28 -0.643 6 0.671 46
0.918 12 UCLA 0.229 12 0.501 11 -0.417 18 1.686 18
0.906 13 Baylor 0.235 11 0.551 10 -0.355 27 -0.589 88
0.860 14 Washington 0.202 16 0.476 13 -0.384 24 1.564 19
0.852 15 Oklahoma 0.215 14 0.409 23 -0.443 15 1.027 37
0.834 16 Arizona 0.154 26 0.43 19 -0.404 19 -1.789 107
0.800 17 LSU 0.213 15 0.601 5 -0.199 38 1.918 10
0.772 18 Ohio State 0.216 13 0.624 3 -0.148 42 2.563 5
0.765 19 Clemson 0.17 22 0.343 26 -0.422 17 -0.241 78
0.758 20 Louisville 0.181 21 0.361 25 -0.397 21 1.337 28
0.745 21 Wisconsin 0.186 19 0.286 31 -0.459 13 0.617 50
0.710 22 Central Florida 0.193 17 0.467 15 -0.243 33 1.459 23
0.710 22 Notre Dame 0.163 23 0.417 20 -0.293 30 -0.34 82
0.696 24 Georgia 0.192 18 0.567 8 -0.129 46 0.074 66
0.690 25 Kansas State 0.16 25 0.46 16 -0.23 35 1.162 33
0.603 26 Mississippi 0.136 28 0.216 37 -0.387 23 -0.783 92
0.555 27 BYU 0.138 27 0.096 48 -0.459 14 -1.13 95
0.545 28 Texas A&M 0.162 24 0.738 1 0.193 87 1.544 21
0.536 29 Virginia Tech 0.123 29 -0.16 78 -0.696 4 -0.192 75
0.480 30 Mississippi State 0.1 32 0.121 46 -0.359 25 -1.589 102

It's tough to see it reflected this way, though obviously a huge reason for optimism. While this is only one rating system - and while special teams plays a critical role in any football team - it goes to show that the Gamecocks have played at an elite level recently, and particularly in 2013.

Where were the issues? Recall, our rating consists of five components (opponent FG success is not included, since we don't control that unless we block kicks):

(1) FGE - Field goal efficiency

(2) PRE - Punt return efficiency

(3) KRE - Kick return efficiency

(4) PE - Punt efficiency

(5) KE - Kickoff efficiency

Gamecocks ST Coordinator FEI Rank FGE PRE KRE PE KE
2013 Joe Robinson 114 40 114 125 32 106

As we all suspected, Elliot Freis-man had a solid season kicking the football for Carolina (though this doesn't include XPs, and while that wasn't our favorite freshman's fault, it should - but does not here - count against the unit as a whole). But the Gamecocks were woeful in the return game, posting bottom 20 results in each, and adding a third bottom 20 effort in kickoffs.

Fascinatingly, for all the grief and questions he got, Tyler Hull and the punt return unit look just fine in this analysis. While his 37.8 average doesn't look great on a gross basis, the team gave up less than 100 yards in punt returns the entire season - only 12 of Hull's 46 kicks were returned, for 99 yards (8.2 avg.) - which means his net punting was 35.6 yards/kick. While that's only 77th in the nation, it's certainly better than the bottom 20 ranking the team earned on gross yards per kick.

I don't think our coaches will show it to recruits this way, but it only goes to show that South Carolina is one of the best football teams in the nation, and may be closer than we think at taking that next step towards a championship. While replacing Shaw, Clowney, Quarles, Ellington, and the others will be a challenge next year, with a wealth of experience returning (especially on the offensive line), South Carolina could be one fixed problem away from a championship in 2014.

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