After last night's debacle, you're probably wondering if it's going to get better this year. Here are my thoughts on where we can and probably shouldn't expect improvement.
Where we can expect improvement this year
1. Offense. The Gamecocks moved the ball offensively last night (in recent years, 28 points has usually been more than enough to win), but more drives than expected stalled out due to the lack of a run game to keep the chains moving. The Gamecocks need more balance on offense, and that's something I think it's reasonable to expect we'll see going forward. Spurrier and Mangus are probably admitting this morning that they panicked last night and abandoned the run when they saw that A&M was going to score a lot of points, and they'll correct that next week. The offensive line didn't play as well as expected last night, but as we all know, the talent is there for it to play much better. Getting Mike Davis back will help. I would also like to see David Williams get Shon Carson's carries.
One other thing I'd like to see more of on offense is Jerrell Adams. Busta Anderson played fairly well last night and is a very good tight end, but Adams looked elite. I think Adams should start over Anderson and that we should run lots of two-TE sets.
2. Linebacker play. The linebackers played poorly in coverage and missed some key tackles last night, which was disappointing because they're the unit we're relying on to lead the defense. However, the talent is there for this group to play much better, and you might just have to hand it to Kevin Sumlin and his staff for drawing up such a great offensive gameplan that caught our linebackers out of position and put them in matchup problems so frequently. They'll face a similar offensive scheme next week against ECU, albeit vs. a team with less talent, and their performance in that game will be telling.
3. Secondary play. Like the linebackers, the safeties were out of position and missed some tackles, but the group has the talent to play better and may have simply had a bad game against a well-coached, talented Aggies offense. I think it's reasonable to expect they'll play better as soon as next week.
Given their youth, the corners are going to take more time to develop. Al Harris and Chris Lammons looked about like what you'd expect of freshmen playing against a high-caliber offense. They should get better with time, but more growing pains should be expected. The good news is that they won't face many teams with A&M's level of talent at receiver. I'm still worried about what's going to happen if Harris ever has to try to tackle Todd Gurley in the open field, though.
What's probably not going to improve this year
Defensive line. I hate to say it, but due to a perfect storm of poor roster management and academic recruiting casualties, we lack elite talent at defensive end. Gerald Dixon is a decent strong-side end who plays with good fundamentals, but he's not an elite athlete. He was effective last year because he was able to make plays when Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles flushed the pocket in his direction, but he's not going to be disruptive force like Clowney or Quarles himself. Darius English and Mason Harris wouldn't be bad options as pass rush specialists, but as every-down ends, they're liabilities. Without better players at end, we're going to struggle to generate a pass rush, and power-running teams like UGA and Auburn are going pound us on the ground. If I were Mike Bobo and I saw English on the field, I'd run Gurley in English's direction every time.
To mask this problem, Coach Ward is going to have to get creative. The 3-4 is his attempt to inject life into the pass rush, but last night we didn't get any production out of the BOB position, played primarily by Bryon Allen-Williams. Hopefully BAW will start making more of an impact as the season progresses, but he's a true freshman and I think we can expect growing pains. Ward can also get more aggressive in blitzing the other linebackers and the safeties, but a good QB will make him pay for that.
Against UGA and Auburn, it might make sense for Ward to go big on the defensive front by replacing English/Harris with a tackle (Abu Lamin is reportedly a very versatile tackle and might be good in this role), but while that might help us against the run, it's going to hurt our already ailing pass rush, and Hutson Mason and Nick Marshall will make us pay if we let them sit back in the pocket and pick us apart.
I'm hoping Ward and his staff can figure this problem out, but it's going to be a tall order to mask this obvious talent deficiency.
I'm not optimistic about us generating a pass rush or defending the run well against UGA and Auburn, and while I'm holding out some hope for a win over UGA given that the game is at home, I'm afraid both games look like likely losses right now. On the other hand, I do think the defense can play better once the linebackers and secondary regroup, and I think the offense will play better once it gets back to its core identity, which is running the football. If we do those things, we should beat the lesser teams on our schedule, and we should also be able to at least split the other two tough games, the trips to Florida and Clemson. If the secondary, linebackers, and run game don't improve, though, we're looking at 7-5 at best.