2009 SEC Preview: South Carolina

2009 SEC Football Previews | Gate 21

Steve Spurrier is set to being his fifth fall as South Carolina’s football coach. In his previous four years in Columbia, he has a record of 28-22. He’s just 15-17 in the SEC during that time. Many expected when the OBC (or Ol’ Ball Coach, as he’s called) was hired he was going to turn Carolina into a winner.

The Gamecocks have gone 6-6 and 7-6 the past two seasons. But I must admit I forgot that they actually got off to solid starts both seasons, only to collapse at the end. In 2007, Carolina was #6 in the country at 6-1, then lost at home to Vanderbilt and lost out, missing out on a bowl game. Last year, Carolina was 5-2 following road wins at Ole Miss and Kentucky.

Carolina led LSU 17-10 at half, before the Tigers rallied to a 24-17 win. They bounced back, beat Tennessee and Arkansas to get to 7-3. Good season, right? Well, Carolina lost their last three games to Florida, Clemson and Iowa in the Outback Bowl by a combined 118-30.

A solid, respectable season, turned disappointing.

Going back to the bigger picture with Spurrier and South Carolina, much of the reason for the Gamecocks’ struggles have centered around the offense. More often during his tenure at SC, Spurrier’s teams have relied on the defense to help them win games.

Now Carolina faces sort of a crossroads. While Tennessee’s hired a new coach and Vandy and Kentucky return good bits of bowl teams – and still well behind Georgia and Florida in the SEC East pecking order – the Gamecocks return just 11 starters and lose some important players. What will Spurrier be able to do with this team?

Schedule Breakdown

    Assumed wins:

  • Florida Atlantic
  • South Carolina State
  • Kentucky (as I mentioned with Kentucky, Spurrier is 16-0 against the Wildcats)
  • Assumed losses:

  • at Alabama
  • Florida (the Gators have scored 51 and 56 points against Carolina the last two years)
  • Toss-ups:

  • at North Carolina State (opening weekend Thursday night)
  • at Georgia (back-to-back road games to open up 2009 for SC)
  • Ole Miss
  • Vanderbilt
  • at Tennessee
  • at Arkansas
  • Clemson (Clemson’s won 10 of 12 against their in-state rivals)
  • Studs

    LB Eric Norwood (Sr.): Norwood is a two-time first team all-SEC player, and he ranked second in the SEC in sacks (9) and second on the team in tackles. Norwood’s the best player on the Gamecock defense, and he’s the senior leader of what’s going to be a young defense in some sports. I would be silly to no mention the loss of Jasper Brinkley in talking about Norwood, as both were really standout players for the last two seasons together.

    Eric Norwood has been a first-team all-SEC performer for two years in a row

    Defensive front seven: In addition to Norwood, Carolina should consider up front a strength. Tackle Nathan Pepper and end Cliff Matthews both return, and Clifton Geathers has seen his fair share of time at the other end spot. Rodney Paulk was fourth on the team in tackles back in 2007 but missed last year due to injury.

    However, there’s two keys that make the difference between this group being good or really good: first, the up-in-the-air status of tackle Ladi Ajiboye, who’s punishment still isn’t totally clear.The other is the other outside linebacker spot, where Josh Dickerson and Tony Straughter, a pair of junior college linebackers, could make an impact.

    S Darian Stewart (Sr.): Stewart’s been all over the Carolina defense in his career, spending significant time at free safety (10 starts in 2007) and outside linebacker (12 starts last year) before being moved to the strong safety spot this year. He and Chris Culliver, a converted receiver, are the elder statesmen in a Carolina secondary that may rely on some freshmen.


    Garcia holds the keys to the season for the Gamecocks

    QB Stephen Garcia (So.): Garcia’s probably the most talented signal-caller Spurrier’s had at Carolina, but he’s been troubled with numerous off-the-field problems and general inexperience. His (as well as the other QBs Chris Smelley and Tommy Beecher, both of whom have transferred) biggest problem last year was turnovers: those three combined for 27 INTs between them. Garcia’s obviously the biggest key to remedying Carolina’s offensive woes, and this season may go as he goes.

    Offensive line: Garcia won’t be able to do much of anything successful if he’s running for his life all the time. In fact, as bad as the quarterbacks have been for Spurrier, much of that may be directly attributable to poor line play, and the OBC lamented that at last week’s Media Days. Of course having poor line play also doesn’t help when you try to run the football and no running game also means more pressure on the QB. Proof: Carolina was dead-last in the SEC in rushing and #112 in the country in ’08, and #111 in sacks allowed. Ouch.

    However, the Gamecocks return three starters and seven linemen who have started 6 or more games in their careers, so experience shouldn’t be an issue. Led by senior center Garrett Anderson, this Carolina line needs to be better.

    Youth: As I mentioned in the intro to the preview, just 11 starters are back (10 if you don’t include Ajiboye) for South Carolina. On top of that, Carolina has just seven scholarship seniors. So yes, this is a young football team.

    What’s New, but Maybe Not Improved

    Assistant coaching changes: I don’t really know how common the overturn of half of the assistant coaches on a staff is, but South Carolina accomplished that this past offseason. Here are the new faces: Craig Fitzgerland (strength and conditioning)’ beloved former Vol Jay Graham (running backs and special teams assistant to Shane Beamer, who’s Frank Beamer’s son); Johnson Hunter (tight ends and special teams assistant); G.A. Mangus (quarterbacks); Lorenzo Ward (safeties); and Eric Wolford (running game coordinator and offensive line coach).

    Chris Cullver (17) and Darian Stewart (24) are the only returning starters in the Carolina secondary

    Freshmen: A team with only 7 scholarship seniors is going to have to rely on freshmen, even if it’s just to shore up the depth. Carolina’s got some freshmen who can come in and contribute, and they’re some familiar names if you’ve followed Tennessee’s recruiting the past year.

    There’s cornerback Stephon Gilmore, a mid-term enrollee who Spurrier raved about as a potential starter at Media Days. Two other defensive backs could make a splash as well: DeVonte Holloman and DeMario Jeffery. Running back Jarvis Giles, a former Vol commit, also enrolled in January and is competing with Eric Baker and Brian Maddox, two backs who ran for just 300 yards between them last year. Wideout/future-gas-station-attendant (sorry, I had to) Alshon Jeffery could come in and help right away as well.

    No Kenny McKinley or Jared Cook: That’s Carolina’s all-time career receving leader and a NFL-caliber tight end that’s going to be missing from the Gamecock offense in 2009. Cook was the second-leading receiver last year, almost 200 yards ahead of third-place Moe Brown, who returns this year. McKinley was well ahead of both of them – and he missed three games early in the year due to injury.

    Brown, sophomore Jason Barnes, junior Dion LeCorn and the aforementioned Jeffery will help to fill McKinley’s void, and junior Weslye Saunders steps in for Cook.

    HSH’s Bold Prediction

    I think I’ve done a decent of job of trying to stay fairly positive in doing all of these previews. South Carolina, however, is the exception. I just don’t see much from this team. They’re obviously a young team and they lost some key players from last year. I don’t want to say it’s a rebuilding year in Columbia, but it’s close to being that way, as a number of younger players are going to have to step up and play key roles for this team. The talent level at Carolina’s higher than it was a decade ago, but at least this year it’s unproven.

    I’m not all about the doom and gloom for the Gamecocks this year, but I’m just not sure I see it with this team. We’ll know early – I don’t envy those trips to Raleigh and Athens to start it off. Then again, this could be a team that gets better as the year progresses, as young teams are prone to do. As it is, assuming they win the games I gave them above in addition to giving them the Vanderbilt game, they’d have to win two out of this bunch: home games against Ole Miss and Clemson and road games at NC State, Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas. Honestly, I think they can get to 6-6, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they did not.

    About Home Sweet Home... … to me.

    Images Courtesy of: C. Aluka Berry / The StateTim Casey / Gator CountryChris O’Meara / AP

About the Author: I'm from Memphis but I'm now entering my third year at the University of Tennessee here in Knoxville. I am majoring in Journalism/Electronic Media and hope to go into sports broadcasting/writing/something like that. I'm a huge Vol fan and have been going to games for as long as I can remember. I started my on blog called "The View From The Hill" but moved here to Gate 21 for bigger and better things. In addition to my passion for Tennessee football and basketball, I enjoy watching the NFL and the NBA as well. Basically, sports are a big part of my life. >> Read more from this author

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