If you haven't read their previews yet, Athlon and The Sporting News both rank South Carolina in their top fives, which if nothing else reflects a sea change in the media's perception of Carolina football after two straight top-ten seasons. Here are a couple of money quotes. First, Athlon:
With a game-changing player like Clowney, South Carolina has a chance for a special season. If Spurrier can manage the Shaw-Thompson rotation and get positive results from Davis, who certainly doesn’t have to be the next Lattimore in his first year as a starter, then the Gamecocks’ offense has a chance to be better than it was the past two seasons, when they leaned on their defense and the offense ranked No. 82 and 74 nationally in yards per game.
The Sporting News:
Here’s something that will make you feel old: This fall will be Steve Spurrier’s ninth season in Columbia—and he’ll have his best team yet. After back-to-back 11-win seasons, it’s time to get to a BCS bowl. The question: Which one? Maybe the Big One.
Resident SB Nation guru Bill Connelly sees things somewhat differently, though. Basically, Connelly's concern boils down to the idea that many prognosticators are ignoring South Carolina's question marks because they're in awe of how good Jadeveon Clowney is. As Connelly points out, though, even a player as good as Clowney likely isn't good enough to take a good team to great in the high-ceiling world of the SEC, so if South Carolina is to live up to the preseason hype, it desperately needs to resolve some of those question marks. Connelly concludes that Carolina is likely to win double-digit games again, but it's also likely to lose to Georgia and at least one of the three-straight mid-season conference road games, and thus miss out on competing for a conference and national championship.
I'm somewhere in between the Athlon/SN optimism and the mild Connelly pessimism, although perhaps leaning towards Connelly's end, which after all is backed up by some impressive research. On the one hand, Carolina has to show answers to some of the question marks in the first couple of games before I'll be feeling optimistic about our chances to finish in the top five. On the other hand, I have a reasonably good feeling about our ability to answer at least most of those question marks. Most outside the program think there's going to be a dropoff in the running game without Marcus Lattimore, but with a more experienced offensive line, a good runningback duo in Mike Davis/Brandon Wilds, and hopefully a healthy Connor Shaw, I think our running game will be better next year than it was last year. Receiver play shouldn't drop off even without Ace Sanders, although I'm playing wait-and-see (particularly with Shaq Roland and Shamier Jeffery) before I say it'll be better. There are some concerns about depth in the secondary, but we've recruited well at those positions in recent years and seem to have some players who are ready to step in. The main remaining question mark is linebacker play, which does indeed concern me very much. If that's our only weakness, though, I think we can finish 11-1, which will give us a good chance to reach the SEC Championship Game.
A few other interesting tidbits from Connelly's excellent preview:
--As Connelly points out, Carolina managed to go 11-2 last year despite being ravaged by injuries. Connelly concludes that depth may be an issue for Carolina based on a variety of evidence, but he also admits that it's very possible that Carolina will fare better this year with injuries.
--On a related note, one player I really worry about with injuries is Shaw, whose style of play puts his body in danger frequently. For all the attention going to other players, I believe having Shaw at 100% might be the biggest key to improved offensive play; as Connelly notes, despite Dylan Thompson's deserved accolades, the offense scored three more points per game with Shaw than with Thompson, and that was despite the fact that Shaw squared off against the better defenses. (Clemson was Thompson's best game, but while Clemson has an elite offense, it doesn't have an SEC-caliber defense.) It was also despite the fact that Shaw was never 100% on the season. If Shaw stays healthy, he could have an All-SEC-caliber season and really help us diversify our offense. The problem is that it seems unlikely that he'll manage to do that if he continues doing the things that make him a dangerous quarterback, i.e., running with reckless abandon.
--I agree with Connelly that it's going to be difficult to replace Sanders's production in the return game, which helped mask some of our offensive struggles. However, if we don't struggle as much on offense, we won't need the help from special teams.
What are your takes on these previews?