One of the joys of writing at GarnetAndBlackAttack is our involvement in the SB Nation network, and the brilliant writers that associate themselves with that network. Foremost among them is Bill Connelly, who writes both for the Missouri Tigers blog RockMNation, as well as the best advanced college football statistics blog out there - Football Study Hall.
Over the past few months, Bill has once again set out on his annual off-season death march, writing previews for all 128 teams that participate in FBS. What began February 10 with Appalachian State continued through this week when he finally finished the SEC, including his post on South Carolina.
So, as we sit here on the cusp of the 2014 season, let's compile and summarize his preview of the other eleven FBS teams on the Gamecocks' schedule. What should fans look out for as we make our way through the 2014 schedule?
August 28 - Texas A&M (preview)
Connelly aptly titles the Aggie preview "the next generation," as they try to move on from the loss of Jake Matthews, Mike Evans, and JFF.
Of course Sumlin and A&M will put together a great offense -
[Starting QB Kenny Hill has] all the physical skills in the world, not to mention one hell of a line, three reasonably experienced running backs, three efficiency receivers (Malcome Kennedy, LaQuvionte Gonalez, Sabian Holmes), and the aforementioned Seals-Jones and Noil. But he'll probably make his share of rookie mistakes, following a good set of plays/drives/games with a sketchy one. But aside from the line, his supporting cast will only get better next year.
But can they improve enough on the other side of the ball?
Injuries, youth, and idiocy have combined to hurt the Aggie defense pretty significantly over the last year. It has done the same in the offseason.
The whole defense was less than the sum of its parts last year; a total lack of continuity played a role in that, but it's hard to say how much of one. We'll probably find out in 2014. Defensive coordinator Mark Snyder has had one great year and one terrible year in charge of the defense, and this fall will break the tie.
September 6 - East Carolina (preview)
The Pirates become the latest AAC opponent (with Central Florida playing the role last year) that Carolina probably regrets scheduling, as they'll likely wish they had a bit easier time the week between A&M and Georgia. The Pirates come to town with an offense ready to play.
ECU runs basically the triple option for passing - they dink and dink and dink and dink their way down the field:
East Carolina basically turns every opponent's defense into a bend-don't-break unit. The Pirates ranked 22nd in Success Rate+ (efficiency) and 98th in IsoPPP+ (explosiveness). Against basically everybody but Virginia Tech, they were able to ride a short passing game to great success, spreading you out, testing your tackling ability on the perimeter, then jabbing up the middle with Vintavious Cooper.
When ECU absolutely needed big plays, the Pirates didn't really get them. But as long as they were able to move the ball at their own pace (and since they didn't face many serious deficits, their own pace lasted for most of 2013), they were just fine. And they were able to frequently wear out defenses and create bigger gains late.
But while they may cause our young secondary some problems, their weaknesses on defense seem to play right into our strengths:
Most of the efficiency issues came against the pass. Seven opponents completed at least 60 percent of their passes; not every offense was able to take advantage of this (Southern Miss, Tulsa, and UAB combined to complete 43 percent of their passes), but the decent and good ones were.
That will probably be the case again this year. ECU must replace four of its top six defensive backs and perhaps its best pass rusher (outside linebacker Derrell Johnson), so I doubt the Pirates will suddenly adopt an aggressive man defense. There's enough star power up front that the run defense could get better while the pass defense gets worse. And opponents will pass once again.
September 13 - Georgia (preview)
Connelly begins this recap noting something that a lot of us realized over the course of 2013 - the UGA team we faced in Athens looked a lot different than the one that staggered off the field five-point losers to Nebraska, due to the significant number of injuries suffered. That said, they still return a whole host of weapons along with senior (but unproven) Hutson Mason.
That Georgia lost all of these players at one time or another and then lost Murray with two games remaining was incredible. More incredible: Georgia still ranked eighth in Off. F/+ and fifth in Passing S&P+. I've said this many times by now, but offensive coordinator Mike Bobo is absurdly underrated. (So was Murray, really, but that's another story.)
The upside of injuries is that Georgia returns three running backs (four including CB-turned-RB-turned-CB J.J. Green) and four wideouts who have served as go-to options at one point or another. If Mitchell, Conley, Bennett, and Scott-Wesley can all hit 100 percent health at the same time, then ... well, never mind Hutson Mason, I'm pretty sure I could throw for 3,000 yards with that group.
So Georgia's offense will run defenses ragged all year, right? Well, maybe.
In run blocking, the line was shaky last year -- lots of short-yardage success, but lots of stops in the backfield -- and while part of that was due to the exploding running backs (Gurley and Marshall were both sophomores, and when they went down, replacements Douglas and Green were freshmen), the line itself didn't always pass the eyeball test. Losing three three-year starters from that line, then, is problematic.
On the other side of the ball, Georgia brings in Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, a massive hire for the Bulldogs. And the Bulldogs have a ton of returning talent in their front seven. But that secondary...
Seniors Damian Swann (a potential breakout) and Corey Moore are still around to provide some leadership, and lord knows there are enough former four-star recruits to suggest the upside is higher than it was last year. But unless Pruitt (former FSU and Bama DBs coach) can coax out more discipline, this will still be a weak spot for the defense.
September 20 - @ Vanderbilt (preview)
Vandy begins anew with Derek Mason taking over for James Franklin. Franklin seemed to have plateaued in Nashville - can Mason break through, or will the 'Dores fall back into the East basement?
Mason's got the bona fides, and one assumes he has as good a chance as anybody of either maintaining Franklin's momentum or generating even more. But as I find myself saying often, difficult jobs remain difficult. A good coach can have some success at Vandy, but it will take a great one to build off of what Franklin established.
Vandy loses production at both the quarterback and wide receiver position, though at least the line comes back mostly intact. Even though the defense will be decent, it's probably not enough for Vanderbilt to be a credible threat to most of the East this year.
On a play-for-play basis, I'm relatively confident about Vanderbilt's defense; there will be breakdowns, and I fear the line will wear down as a game progresses. But I see potential for another top-50 unit here, and holding steady while under serious transition is never a bad thing.
The offense will hold Vandy back, perhaps significantly. The running game should be competent and semi-efficient, and I assume whoever wins the QB job will be competent as well. But this offense had three play-makers last year -- Jordan Matthews, Jordan Matthews, and Jonathan Krause -- and now has no proven big-play threats.
September 27 - Missouri (preview)
Missouri doesn't enter the season the favorite in the East despite winning the division last season, but discount the Tigers at your peril - they still remain a formidable challenger for the crown, and the Gamecocks will need to put on a great performance in Williams-Brice to get away with their third consecutive victory over Mizzou.
While Missouri returns semi-starting quarterback Matt Mauk, they need to find pieces to surround him:
First things first: the running game should be fine. A line that ranked sixth in Adj. Line yards returns five players with starting experience, including star center Evan Boehm. And while the loss of Henry Josey shouldn't be completely written off, if you're going to lose him, you might as well replace him with two backs who combined for 1,286 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy were both more efficient, if less explosive, than Josey a year ago, and bigger back Morgan Steward could see quite a few carries, especially if Murphy ends up spending time at slot receiver, as has been the rumble out of fall camp.
The question, however, comes at receiver. Obviously. In Dorial Green-Beckham (dismissed), L'Damian Washington (graduated) and Marcus Lucas (graduated), Missouri must replace three players who accounted for 20 targets, 12 catches, and 176 yards per game. Their per-target averages (combined: 8.7 yards per target) were only good, not spectacular, but they were big, physical targets who gave Missouri unique matchup advantages and blocked like crazy on run plays.
On the other side of the ball, Missouri returns some talent, but it's younger and less proven talent:
With the top four tackles back, along with Golden and Ray, the line should still be a strength. But the underbelly might be pretty soft if there are injuries.
Missouri appears to have traded brute strength for athleticism at linebacker, potentially replacing underrated Andrew Wilson and Donovan Bonner with speedy sophomores Michael Scherer and Donavin Newsom. Wilson was an outright beast against opposing fullbacks, so we'll see if his absence creates some holes in run defense. But the biggest question comes at cornerback.
When E.J. Gaines got hurt against Georgia, then-freshmen Aarion Penton and John Gibson filled in rather well. They couldn't stop Bruce Ellington late in the South Carolina game, but that's not a huge dishonor. If they live up to the promise they briefly showed, then when combined with a seasoned set of safeties (most notably Braylon Webb), they could help to form a rock solid secondary, one that is once again capable of taking advantage of harried passers.
Still ... you're trading two seniors for two sophomores and some ifs. That's not a trade you actively seek.
If the secondary doesn't improve, look for Dylan Thompson to have a big day against the Tigers, something he did last season, a performance primarily lost because of Connor Shaw's heroics and the Gamecocks inability to finish drives with Thompson, caused in part by two fumbles in the red zone by running backs.
October 4 - @ Kentucky (preview)
Kentucky just wrapped up a top 25 recruiting class, and while they will improve in 2014 over 2013, they probably won't be a threat to the rest of the SEC East. At least, not yet.
At first glance, it's easy to assume that the Wildcats will be better at quarterback, running back, receiver, offensive line, defensive end, linebacker, and defensive back in 2014 -- basically everywhere but defensive tackle. The weaknesses will still be relatively weak, but Kentucky will be better in 2014 than it was in 2013. And barring some epic defections list, the Wildcats will probably be better in 2015, too. After a rapid three-year slide, that's reason to celebrate in and of itself.
The offense is young but getting older, and the defense must improve if the Wildcats want to keep pace.
Despite a top-40 pass rush, UK ranked 85th in Passing S&P+ and 113th on passing downs. It is perhaps exciting that the four most intriguing returnees from a pure play-maker perspective -- nickel back Blake McClain, corner Fred Tiller, corner J.D. Harmon, and safety Marcus McWilson -- were all either freshmen or sophomores last year. (Harmon redshirted in 2013.) Only McClain and Tiller project as starters this year, but maybe there's hope there. And maybe the addition of a pair of JUCO transfers (A.J. Stamps, Zack Blaylock) and two four-star freshmen (Darius West, Kendall Randolph) can plump up the overall quality a bit.
They better, at least, because the secondary is the cornerstone of the 4-2-5, and Kentucky's just wasn't good enough last year.
October 18 - Furman
Bill previews 128 teams. He doesn't make time for FCS. I don't think we can hold this against him.
October 25 - @ Auburn
A relatively easy October up until this point gets turned up quickly with a trip to The Plains, where a team that combined good fortune with strong play last year and looks to repeat as SEC West champions. They return a ton from an offense that paced that national championship game run last season:
Assuming quarterback Nick Marshall stays out of trouble from here on out (he won't start the Arkansas game because of a marijuana citation), and assuming opponents don't suddenly find a magic bullet, this run game should be devastating. And with a tempo notorious enough to have its own billboard, there's reason to believe that Auburn's 2014 offense will be a lot more like that of November 2013 than September (or even October).
On the other side of the ball, Ellis Johnson will try to continue to force teams into 2nd- and 3rd-and-long situations, where the Tigers thrived:
When Auburn leveraged you into passing downs, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson knew what to do. The Tigers were so good on passing downs -- third in Passing Downs S&P+, 13th in passing downs sack rate -- that it was easy to forget the other downs, the ones in which opponents were gashing Auburn with the run or using the threat of the run to keep the pass rush on its heels.
It was like Auburn had 10 players on the field on standard downs and 12 on passing downs.
November 1 - Tennessee (preview)
Tennessee fans will hate to read this, but they're basically a better Kentucky at this point - a team that can start to see its turnaround in the recruiting ratings, if not yet the field.
A massive rebuild on both lines will probably prevent the Vols from doing much better than 5-7 in 2014, but there is distinct reason for optimism in the future. Recruiting rankings expire, and if results don't soon follow, the recruiting will dry up. But for now, the window of opportunity appears to be more open than it has been for a while.
In 2014, the Vols will have some exciting skill players, but the lines will simply not be good enough.
[Tennessee is] losing five offensive linemen who had combined to start the equivalent of nearly 15 full seasons (178 career starts). Four-year starting tackle Ja'Wuan James, three-year (and then some) starting guard Zach Fulton and center James Stone, two-year starting guard Alex Bullard, and two-year starting tackle (and all-conference performer) Tiny Richardson are all gone, leaving behind junior guard Marcus Jackson, center Mack Crowder, and a whiff of new-lineman smell.
[And on defense], this line is terribly young. Sophomores Danny O'Brien and Corey Vereen hinted at potential, but both are small for their position. There should be plenty of speed on the line, but speed doesn't necessarily help you in run support, and neither does a high level of inexperience. It's hard to see the run defense improving without McCullers and Sapp, and it's hard to see the pass rush performing as well without Miller and Walls.
November 15 - @ Florida (preview)
The Gators try to come back from a year where they did nothing right on offense and suffered too many injuries to overcome it. Can a new offensive coordinator cure what ails the Gainesville Gators?
We don't know for sure what Kurt Roper's approach will be in Gainesville; Pease's own Boise State background didn't give us much in the way of predictive help. Muschamp brings his own preferences (run, run, run, and don't hand the defense a short field) to the table. But we know that Duke was very balanced in 2013, running and passing at rates almost exactly equal to national averages. The Blue Devils employed all sorts of short passes that, in conjunction with the run game, helped them both stay ahead of the chains and set up the occasionally deadly play-action pass.
This sounds great in theory, but the success of this will depend both on better run blocking and more consistent running (for my own preferences, that means more Kelvin Taylor and less Mack Brown). It will also require Florida to overcome its fear of the forward pass.
If Coach Boom does let the offense loose, the Gators should be a complete theme, and they will likely continue to thrive on defense. That said, they still have some potential weaknesses...
Still, in losing Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs, Florida is tasked with replacing one of the better sets of play-making safeties in the country. Those two and departed corner Loucheiz Purifoy combined for 12 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and 19 passes defensed last year; Hargreaves is obviously good, and Gorman and Poole aren't chopped liver, but there's no guarantee that production can be replaced. There's also no guarantee that the latest batch of blue-chippers -- corners Jalen Tabor and Duke Dawson, redshirt freshmen Marcell Harris and Nick Washington, etc. -- will acclimate as quickly as Hargreaves did.
November 22 - South Alabama (preview)
Bill sees the Jaguars as another (along with ECU) non-conference game where the Gamecocks may not get the cupcake they tried to sign. The Jaguars finished 68th in the F/+ ratings system Connelly uses over at Football Outsiders, right next to the Tennessee Volunteers (who barely beat USA last year). Still, the Jaguars need to replace some key pieces this season if they want to replicate that finish:
Quarterback Ross Metheny, who passed for 2,600 yards and rushed for more than 700 (not including sacks) is gone, but just about everybody else of note returns on the offensive side of the ball. The major areas of concern come on the defense, where a fast, active and undersized front seven must replace six of nine on the line and four of six at linebacker.
If the defense is up to the challenge, the Jaguars could be a serious Sun Belt contender and could pose quite the challenge to Mississippi State in Mobile on September 13. Just as likely, however, is a step backwards on defense and a year of stagnation overall.
The 2013 Jaguars did a decent job of moving the ball and creating big plays, but struggled to finish drives, finishing 103rd in that category. That group returns mostly intact, with one major exception - the quarterback.
Metheny is basically the only starter not returning for USA in 2014, but quarterbacks are of course rather important. Metheny's solid efficiency keyed the Jaguars' attack, and there isn't an obvious successor.
If the quarterback situation is resolved, there might not be another obvious, unanswered question for this offense. The top three rushers all return, as do the top four pass targets and five linemen with extensive starting experience.
On the other side of the ball, however, the Jaguars lose most of the key pieces of a defense that didn't exactly light the world on fire last year.
The problem: Of the nine players with at least 4.5 TFLs, only three return. The three prolific linemen (Alex Page, Romelle Jones, Pat Moore)? All gone. Leading tackler Enrique Williams? Gone.
All is not lost.... But this is a severe test of South Alabama's depth, and FBS newcomers don't tend to pass those tests. (Newcomers also don't tend to rank in the top 70 in Year 2. South Alabama did.)
The Jaguars get two shots at an SEC victory, with a game in Mobile (where USA hails from) against Mississippi State on the calendar as well as their match-up with the Gamecocks.
November 29 - @ Clemson (preview)
Let's get this out of the way now - Connelly thinks the Tigers could be very good in 2014.
Now, I cannot necessarily justify placing Clemson in the top five, not with a new quarterback, not without Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant. But if you view projections as the best starting point for conversation, this projection hints at just how much Clemson returns and just how well Dabo Swinney and his staff have been recruiting. The Tigers are going to have an absolutely ferocious front six/seven on defense, and while they're replacing quite a few difference makers on offense, they're making replacements from a deep pool of former four- or five-star recruits.
While Chad Morris normally puts strong offenses on the field, there's a chance Clemson struggles this year given the pieces it needs to replace on that side of the ball:
A well-executed spread run by a strong quarterback can overcome a lack of standout skill-position talent, as long as there is plenty of competence. We really don't know about standouts at this point, but there are options.
It's an interesting mix of limited veterans and high-upside youngsters. At running back, you've got senior D.J. Howard and juniors Zac Brooks and C.J. Davidson, who combined to average 4.4 yards per carry (decent efficiency, no explosiveness) backing up Hot Rod McDowell. You've also got two four-star true freshmen and two high-caliber redshirt freshmen.
At receiver, you've got veteran possession receivers Adam Humphries and Charone Peake (combined: 11.6 yards per catch, 78 percent catch rate in 2013), four-star sophomores Germone Hopper and Mike Williams, four four-star true freshmen, and three nearly interchangeable tight ends. I'm excited about Williams as a Bryant-type of downfield threat, but this unit's strength will be in its numbers, not its singular upside.
On the other side of the ball, a good Clemson defense looks to improve given the pieces it returns from last year's unit. While it's secondary may struggle, it's front surely will not.
If this isn't the best defensive line in the country, it's in the top three or four. Clemson's was one of only three defenses to rank in the top 10 in both Adj. Line Yards and Adj. Sack Rate (the others: Virginia Tech and Tulane), and the entire two-deep returns in 2014. Senior end Vic Beasley is one of the best pure pass rushers in college football, and while he takes some risks and falls out of position from time to time, the rest of the defense is adept at covering for him. The tackles position is loaded and deep, and in Shaq Lawson, Corey Crawford, and others, Clemson has quite a few ends capable of standing up to run blocking. This is a nearly flawless unit; it's amazing to think of how much this line struggled barely two years ago.
In a twist ending to the piece, Connelly ends by comparing Clemson to... South Carolina?
I like this team. Both Clemson and South Carolina this year could be examples of the power of depth over star power. Both are losing irreplaceable players, but both have tons of options in creating a new identity.
And with that, we wrap up our tour around the schedule. Anything in the previews you strongly agree or disagree with? Let it loose in the comments.