It's never too soon to start thinking about next season (well, maybe it is, but we're gluttons for this sort of stuff), and Athlon has released its early bird 2012 preseason rankings. They have Carolina coming in at 15th. Although I disagree about some of the other picks (Ohio State at 5th? Urban Meyer took a couple of years to turn Florida around, and he has an arguably tougher job at OSU), I do think they're fair to Carolina. Here's why.
--Carolina should definitely be good enough to finish in the top 25 again. Although we lose some defensive playmakers and Alshon Jeffery, we return plenty of talent, and the SEC East should again provide a fair number of wins.
--That said, we will need some guys to step up if we're going to replicate our 2011 record, particularly on defense. With Melvin Ingram, Antonio Allen, Travian Robertson, and potentially Devin Taylor, Stephon Gilmore, and / or D.J. Swearinger gone, we're losing a good bit of defensive production. It's fair to expect a drop off in performance. Of course, it's also very possible that guys will step in and perform. Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles look ready to step in for Ingram and Robertson, while DeVonte Holloman may be ready to have the kind of breakout year Allen enjoyed.
--Carolina won a lot of close games this year. I'm not saying we were lucky, but we gutted out several close games, while only losing one. There's likely a reasonable perception that our close-game performance may balance out next year, making it difficult for us to again finish in the top 10.
Of course, things will change a lot between now and when the real preseason polls come out. Some things that may influence the Gamecocks' ranking include:
--Our bowl performance. The particular thing to watch is the performance of the offense and Connor Shaw. If they explode against the Huskers, the perception will be that Shaw and the offense gelled over the last few games and will be a juggernaut next season. As good as he is, I don't expect losing Jeffery to be a huge blow. We're very deep at receiver right now and have some more good ones coming in. None will replace Jeffery, but we'll also have a QB in Shaw who knows how to distribute the ball.
--Departures. Needless to say, it would be wonderful if some or all of the Taylor, Gilmore, and Swearinger trio come back. If all come back, then it's quite possible the defense will be just as good as last year.
--The schedule. There's a lot of uncertainty about what the schedule will be next year. Needless to say, if things get switched around heavily and we end up with a really tough SEC West draw, that could effect our chances to win a lot of games.