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What Could Go (Somewhat Unexpectedly) Right: The 2012 Gamecock Football Team

The 2011 Kentucky game is the only full game that Marcus Lattimore and Connor Shaw played together. Is this tandem ready for a big step forward in 2012?
The 2011 Kentucky game is the only full game that Marcus Lattimore and Connor Shaw played together. Is this tandem ready for a big step forward in 2012?

Last week I highlighted a number of things that could be reasonably foreseen to break the wrong way for the Gamecocks in the 2012 football season. Today we'll buy into all of the preseason coachspeak and take a look at some areas where South Carolina could exceed expectations. To take an example from last year, most were expecting Melvin Ingram to turn in a nice senior season in 2011, but few (if any) foresaw that MI6 would become a nationally recognized name and a first round NFL draft pick when all was said and done.

Keep reading after the jump.

Connor Shaw builds on his success during the final four games of 2011 and becomes a 70% passer.

Steve Spurrier and Shawn Elliot commit heavily to the read option, resulting in a lethal 1-2 punch with Connor Shaw and Marcus Lattimore running the ball out of the backfield.

The read option has been an element of Spurrier's offense ever since Eric Wolford's one-and-done season as offensive line coach in 2009. (Thanks for the correction, Gamecock Man.) But Stephen Garcia, while more mobile than most, was never a truly explosive threat as a ball carrier. Connor Shaw changes that, and will force crashing defensive ends to stay at home and respect him as a threat to keep it and run outside, opening up opportunities for Lattimore to take up the middle and utilize the superior field vision that is his hallmark. Sure, this won't be that much different from what we saw at the end of last season, but we only got to see Shaw and Lattimore on the field at the same time for 9 quarters in 2011, and I think we could see a real step forward on offense now that Connor has had some time to settle into the role of starting QB. If the bodies of Shaw and Lattimore can hold up to the rigors of an SEC season, this squad could be in the conversation with the likes of Arkansas for best offense in the league. (This may come as a surprise, but the Gamecocks were fifth in the conference in yards per play despite having a tough time of it for much of the 2011 season.)

The question of whether DeAngelo Smith and D.L. Moore will finally show up in meaningful games becomes moot when true freshman Shaq Roland proves to be an above average SEC wide receiver from day one. Damiere Byrd finally shows the ball skills needed to fully utilize his elite speed.

The buzz coming out of fall practice has dampened where it concerns freshman Kwinton Smith of late (who now appears headed for a redshirt), but things seem to be really clicking for Shaq Roland. After hauling in a number of impressive catches during the first week and a half of practice, it's looking like Shaq may have the ball skills to make an impact right away. Damiere Byrd has also looked good in fall practice, but I'll believe it when I see it in game action.

The backup offensive linemen get a lot of reps in the first five games as South Carolina coasts to decisive victories in at least four of the first five games.

The number of career games played among South Carolina's backup offensive linemen will be either 8 or 10, depending on whether Cody Gibson or Mike Matulis emerges from fall practice as the starting right tackle. None of the other backups (Broome, Harris, Robinson, and Sport) have any game experience.

Victor Hampton validates glowing reports coming out of fall practice and becomes an All-SEC cornerback, and Akeem Auguste bounces back from an injury-stricken beginning to fall practice to record a start in 90% of the contests in 2012.

Each additional report coming out of fall practice seems to solidify Victor Hampton's status as a solid option at the boundary corner position. Everyone who watched the Georgia game last year would like it very much if Akeem Auguste was able to stay healthy enough to preclude Jimmy Legree from becoming a starting cornerback.

Tyler Hull becomes the best punter on the team the first day he steps on campus and never looks back.

So I've been sitting on this entry since the middle of last week and, in that time, Hull has already taken significant steps toward solidifying his role as the Gamecocks' starting punter, with Steve Spurrier intimating after Monday's practice that Hull has the inside track to win the job. Hull told the media that he'd be satisfied with averaging in the low 40s on his punts. After bearing witness against their will to the Joey Scribner-Howard experiment, so would a lot of Gamecock fans.

How good can the Gamecocks be if all of these things happen?

A national championship contender. Games that the Gamecocks will be favored in but not by much (Vanderbilt, Missouri, Tennessee) get a little more comfortable and toss-up games against Georgia, Arkansas, and Florida would start to tilt slightly in South Carolina's favor. Surviving all of that and LSU unblemished would still be tough, but one loss and a trip to Atlanta would seem highly probable. And if the Gamecocks can make it that far, Clemson and either LSU, Alabama, or Arkansas will be all that stands between them and a spot in the BCS Championship. And, of course, Marcus Lattimore will likely have been a finalist for the Heisman trophy.