Back in August, which seems like a long time ago, I posted on Cock & Fire a list of "Five Things to Watch in 2007" for South Carolina.
Now that we're at the midpoint of the season, let's look at where the Gamecocks stand in each of them:
1. Protection, protection, protection.
The offensive line has to keep Blake or Chris Smelley or whoever's under center (are we sure Syvelle's out of eligibility?) upright. Blake makes mistakes for many reasons, but one of the top ones is a lack of protection. There are three new starters on the line, and they have to step up, or the dreams of competing in the SEC will turn to dying hopes of remaining bowl eligible.
The line has surrendered 16 sacks, almost three a game. There have also been plenty of times when the QBs were under pressure but technically not brought to the ground, or at least not until they got rid of the ball. That number was inflated by the five sacks logged by Kentucky, which should actually be troubling, since the Wildcats' previous high-water mark was three, against Louisville. Big Blue didn't even log a sack against Florida Atlantic.
Had more time than Smelley.
This was expected to be one of the weakness of the team this season. It has been, and there will need to be improvement by the time the Orange Crush comes around.
2. Cory Boyd tilts the balance.
Boyd and backup Mike Davis have to continue to provide balance for the offense. It's pretty clear that Blake is probably not the guy to lead South Carolina to an SEC title; that said, being a solid SEC team is not out of reach. But it depends entirely on whether the running game can take some of the pressure off Mitchell.
The running game has been mediocre. The Gamecocks are averaging 130.7 yards a game on the ground, good enough -- or, rather, bad enough -- for 76th in the country. Cory Boyd is rushing for 4.7 yards a carry and Mike Davis for 4.8; both have had their clutch moments.
More than that could be needed, though the emergence of Smelley as a legitimate passing threat could either (a) open up more running opportunities down the road, or (b) make a powerful running game less necessary.
The production out of Boyd and Davis this year, though, is about the minimum South Carolina will need to be successful.
The winner of South Carolina-Georgia ends up in the SEC East race until late in the season, while the loser usually ends up in a lower-tier bowl. This is as close to a must-win as it comes if the Gamecocks want to have the kind of 8-4 or 9-3 season that would prove the program is still on the rise.
The jury is still out on this one. South Carolina beat the spelling-challenged Dawgs, then lost (respectably) to LSU and beat Kentucky out of breaks both created by the Gamecocks and surrendered by the Wildcats. Games against North Carolina and Vanderbilt are likely to reveal few answers. It won't be until the showdown with Tennessee that we'll know whether this team is special or not. But the Gamecocks are still in a position to make the game against Florida the de facto SEC East Championship Game, or "The Right to Get Defeated by LSU Again" Game.
4. Closing things out.
The story of 2006 was sickeningly similar every time South Carolina faced the best in the SEC: Get into a position to win, then make the critical mistake and watch it slip away. ... Even if the Gamecocks just want to be competitive, they have to learn how to close out the wins against the Big Three and the Western powers.
Again, nothing definitive so far this year. The Gamecocks did manage to avoid coughing up the slender, four-point lead at Georgia and outscored Kentucky 14-10 in the fourth quarter to put that game out of reach. And while outscoring LSU 9-0 in the final frame is all well and good, there's little evidence that the Bayou Bengals were going to press the issue as long as they were ahead.
5. Stop the run.
This is the one thing that Tyrone Nix's defenses have not done well. The 146.8 ypg coughed up in 2006 were not terrible, but the numbers were worse when individual games and situations are considered. SEC rushers had considerably better luck, including 219 yards posted by (who else?) Darren McFadden.
Not so much. Opponents have piled up an average of 193.8 yards a game against the Gamecocks defense, though three of the four SEC teams South Carolina has faced -- Georgia (128), Mississippi State (140) and Kentucky (157) -- have been held to fewer yards. Those numbers, though, are also nothing to boast about.
Almost 200 yards a game? Yum.
And LSU gashed the Gamecocks for 290 yars on the ground, with three rushers going over 50 yards: Jacob Hester (88), Trindon Holliday (73) and Ryan Perrilloux (59).
South Carolina still must face the second-ranked ground attack in the country (Arkansas, 338.4 ypg) and 21st-ranked rushing team (Florida, 202.8 ypg). One of those games, Florida, is a must-win. Arkansas is a should-win, though the Hogs' 3-2 record suggests that even allowing them to have their way on the ground might not be fatal.
In other words, the most important games to shut down the run are still ahead. If Nix can find away to slow down those teams, the early-season slump can be forgiven.
If not, the results so far are just a prelude to a shortcoming that could cost the Gamecocks dearly.