It's an off week, so Jorge, Connor, ChickenHoops, and I hold forth below on some general topics regarding the Gamecocks' season. Dear readers, we encourage you to offer your own thoughts on these topics in the comments section.
1. How would you rate the Gamecocks' performance so far this year? Killing it? Meeting expectations? Abysmal failure? Why?
Connor: Coming into the year, just about everyone thought the Gamecocks would have a strong offense and a defense with a young back seven that would need to round into form in order for South Carolina to achieve its most important goals. That is almost exactly what has happened. The only major disappointment has been the loss to Tennessee, but most also thought it was pretty reasonable that the Gamecocks would drop one of its three consecutive SEC road games in the month of October. The only surprise is that it came to Tennessee, not Missouri.
2. The Gamecocks are in the running to make the SEC Championship Game, but they may have a better chance of playing in the Sugar Bowl if they win out but don't win the East. Let's assume that Carolina loses to Alabama in Atlanta if we make it. Would you rather see Carolina go to Atlanta, lose, and play in another Capital One or Outback Bowl, or win out, miss Atlanta, and get the at-large bid to the Sugar Bowl? Why?
Connor: I stopped reading this question after the second clause. I would rather lose 5,000-0 in the SEC Championship Game and play in the BBVA Compass Bowl than not win the East and get an invite to the Sugar Bowl. Winning the SEC East should be our primary objective until such point that we expect to win it every single season.
Jorge: I'm going Sugar Bowl. In this, the last year of the BCS system, it'd be nice to lay claim to at least a single appearance in one of the major bowls. Granted, a Championship Game win (no matter how unlikely) would usher us into a BCS bowl, but the criteria here included a loss to Alabama. It'd look a lot better to sneak into a BCS game than it would to serve as Alabama's regular season victory lap.
Chicken Hoops: You play for championships, and winning the East is a championship. Despite that, the SEC Championship Game is simply a bigger deal - last year, over 20 million people tuned in. Less than half that number watch the Sugar Bowl, because while it's of course an interesting game, there's nothing at stake. Being on the same field as Alabama, playing for a championship, gives us credibility in a way that a BCS game might not, especially if the Sugar has to take Northern Illinois.
Gamecock Man: I would take the SECCG. Winning championships is the ultimate goal, and even if we lose in the SECCG, we can claim an Eastern Division title if we make it to Atlanta. For a program with so few championships over its history, another Eastern Division title would mean the world. It gives our coaches more ammo in recruiting wars against the traditional Big Three than an at-large bid in the Sugar Bowl ever would. The fact that we've never played in a BCS bowl makes the Sugar enticing, but frankly, some of the BCS bowls in past years have been lackluster in comparison to the bowls we've been playing in. I think everyone knows by this point that getting an at-large bid to a BCS bowl doesn't necessarily mean a team is better than a team playing in the Capital One bowl. Would Georgia have preferred to have been in Florida's spot last year? That's a rhetorical question, of course.
Connor: Largely because of the attention Clowney receives from opposing offenses, Kelcy Quarles has been able to 7 sacks and 11 TFL, which are pretty insane numbers for an interior defensive lineman. Keep in mind: Quarles could have entered the NFL draft last season because, despite being a true sophomore at the time, he was three years removed from high school after spending a year at Fork Union.
5. What's your personal opinion regarding how the rest of the season plays out? Do the Gamecocks win out? Do they make it to Atlanta? Where do they go bowling?
Connor: The Gamecocks will win out, but they will not make it to Atlanta, unless they do so in the capacity of representing the SEC in the Chick-fil-a Bowl. Missouri needs to lose to Ole Miss or Texas A&M, and Georgia needs to lose to Auburn. I see one of these scenarios happening, but not both.
Jorge: Of our remaining legitimate opponents (let's just ignore that Coastal's 9-0), South Carolina has the best combined F/+ rating (17, compared to Clemson at 23 and Florida at 33). Of course, those aren't cavernous divides and I think we're capable of losing to either if we're plagued by any of the demons that have cost us points and games throughout the first 75% of the season. But Florida seems to have angered some Pagan injury deity, while we all know Clemson's had their struggles with middling ACC opponents like Maryland and BC (while, yes, blowing others out.) Still, I refuse to cite, "We've got them at home" and "It's senior day so our boys will be hungry" as hard evidence, since I'm guessing Clemson fans were spouting that same sort of rhetoric this time last year. Interesting to note that, based on S&P ratings, Clemson's offense has regressed and defense has improved from last season, while the opposite is true for us (offense up, defense down). Will these complementary shifts offset? Of course, our special teams ratings are abysmal—FEI ST ratings put us at 117th, including dead last in punt return efficiency. Sidestepping the sort of special teams ineptitude that nearly cost us Kentucky and Vanderbilt and did cost us Tennessee will go a long way in helping us sweep the final stretch of the 2013 campaign. We proved we can (mostly) avoid those pitfalls against MSU and we all know a team's only as good as its most recent game*, so, hell, why not? 10-2 or bust!
* Obviously, I don't believe this is to be true...I just like to make Chicken Hoops' blood pressure spike.
ChickenHoops: I think it's likely that we're going to win out, and it's going to be really hard to be disappointed with 10-2, but we're going to be, because either UGA will beat Auburn or Missouri will win out. Remember - if UGA wins, then we're done no matter what else happens. Right now, the markets and advanced statistics suggest UGA has about a 35% chance of winning, which means in 35% of all scenarios we're done. So in the remaining 65% of scenarios, let's say Missouri wins out half the time or so - that puts us at about 2:1 underdogs to get to Atlanta. Can it happen? Sure. But I'm trying not to depend on it happening to be happy with this year, because it's out of our control.
Gamecock Man: I think Carolina will win out. We'll be substantial favorites hosting a struggling Florida team, and while Clemson is likely to give us a good game, I think our improving defense will shut down Tajh Boyd and company and we'll score enough points to win a hard-fought game.
As far as making Atlanta goes, I'm optimistic. There's a solid chance that Mizzou will drop one to Ole Miss or Texas A&M. The Georgia-Auburn game is the one I'm not sure about. Georgia is getting healthier, and the jury is still out on Auburn. They've obviously achieved an impressive turnaround, but they really only have two good wins, at home over a good-but-not-great Ole Miss and at A&M. I'm not sure how much to make of their win over A&M. Almost every A&M game has been a shootout, and someone was bound to make enough plays to beat the Aggies sooner or later. Still, the game is at Auburn, and with Auburn having lost big to Georgia several times in recent years, you have to imagine that Malzahn understands the gravity of the opportunity to turn this rivalry around and will have his guys playing their best ball. If Auburn wins, I think we get to Atlanta.
If we don't go to Atlanta, I'm not optimistic we got to the Sugar Bowl. It seems more likely than not that either Auburn or Texas A&M will be available, and I doubt the Sugar picks us over either of those programs. Still, there's a chance.