The case for
The Gamecocks are led on defense by college football's most feared player, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Even scarier for opponents: The 6'6", 274-pound junior reportedly ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds in July. On offense, coach Steve Spurrier has two quality quarterbacks in senior Connor Shaw, the returning starter who is also a running threat, and junior Dylan Thompson, a prototypical passer who went 2--0 last season while filling in when Shaw was out with shoulder and foot injuries. The offensive line has four starters back, led by 6'4" junior left guard A.J. Cann. There's depth at the skill positions, including 5'9" junior wide receiver Bruce Ellington and 6'5" junior tight end Rory Anderson.
The case against
Second-year defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward has lots of holes to fill after losing seven of his top 10 tacklers from a unit that was ranked 11th nationally in 2012. Not one player has started at linebacker or at the Spur, South Carolina's all-important hybrid linebacker-safety position. There are also questions about whether Spurrier can effectively manage his two-quarterback system as well as replace tailback Marcus Lattimore and receiver Ace Sanders, both of whom left early for the NFL.
How do you feel about your quarterbacks?
We have two good quarterbacks. Connor [Shaw] is our starter and Dylan [Thompson] is ready. We want to tell one, "It's your game," but I don't know exactly how it's going to work out.
You've won 11 games each of the past two seasons. How did you not win the East Division either year?
We've beaten Georgia, but then they don't lose again. That's happened two years in a row. They've won all their conference games after losing to us. We'll try to do the best we can this year.
You've gone from the Fun 'n' Gun to a run-first offense. Why did you decide to do that?
You coach to your talent. If you can't pass-block very well, if your quarterback is getting sacked and throwing interceptions, you can't throw very much. We started running a lot with Marcus Lattimore. He could take over the game.
Is Jadeveon Clowney the best player you've coached?
The best player? He might be the best defensive end. I don't know if he could play offensive guard or not. He probably could.
Player to Watch
Freshman Larenz Bryant will make an immediate impact. At 6 feet and 215 pounds he needs to add strength to be an every-down linebacker, but his athleticism, motor and instincts will get him by at Will, where he won't face as many blockers head-on.
Projected 2013 Stats
QB Connor Shaw
Pass: 1,650 yards, 16 TDs
Run: 480 yards, 6 TDs
QB Dylan Thompson
Pass: 1,160 yards, 11 TDs
Run: 25 yards, 0 TDs
RB Mike Davis
Run: 800 yards, 7 TDs
Rec.: 225 yards, 1 TD
The Gamecocks appear to have the easiest path to the SEC title game: Aside from a Week 2 visit to Georgia, all of their toughest games are in Columbia. If they beat the Bulldogs, the key will be not looking too far ahead to the Nov. 16 game against Florida, a matchup that should decide the East Division crown.
SI Power Ratings
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
JOE ROBBINS/GETTY IMAGES (CLOWNEY)
BILL FRAKES/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (SPURRIER)