With four different teams (Auburn, Alabama, LSU and Florida twice) winning national titles in the past five years plus three Heisman Trophy winners (Tim Tebow, Mark Ingram and Cam Newton), winning the SEC championship has become the single most important factor in determining leading candidates for college football's top team and individual honors.
The Scout.com SEC publishers have tabbed Alabama as the overall favorite to
win the league championship and make its way to another BCS title game. LSU drew
strong support both as the second choice in the SEC West and for the overall title with
South Carolina getting the nod over Georgia for the SEC East championship. All 12
teams will be previewed in their predicted order of finish over the next couple of weeks.
South Carolina (1)
South Carolina head football coach Steve Spurrier returns for his seventh season in
Columbia as his Gamecocks look to build on the program's first ever SEC East title from
a season ago.
The Gamecocks brings back one of the SEC's best offensive duos in national
Freshman-of-the-Year running back Marcus Lattimore and All-America wide receiver
and Biletnikoff Award finalist Alshon Jeffery.
Those two gave defenses fits last season but the biggest question remains whether or
not fifth-year senior quarterback Stephen Garcia will be back under center after being
indefinitely suspended during spring practice.
Garcia is third all-time at South Carolina in passing yards (6,753), completions (528),
attempts (903), and passing touchdowns (43). He has started 28 consecutive games and
has made a team-high 30 career starts overall, but is often criticized for his off-the-field
issues. A joint-decision among athletics director Eric Hyman, President Harris Pastides
and Spurrier about Garcia's status with the team should be made early this summer.
All signs currently point to Garcia being back as long as he doesn't have any other issues.
If Garcia isn't allowed back on the team, the likely starter is sophomore Connor
Shaw. The South Carolina coaches are high on Shaw's natural ability but he lacks game
experience. Shaw played in nine games as a true freshman completing 23-of-33 passes
for 223 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
Regardless of who's taking the snaps, Lattimore and Jeffery will remain the focus of
the offense. Last season as a freshman, Lattimore notched the third-best single-season
rushing total in Carolina history when he rushed for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Jeffery set single-season school records in both receptions (88) and receiving yards
(1,517) while leading the SEC in receiving yards per game (108.4).
Both superstars should have more depth complementing them than a season go. Junior
running backs Kenny Miles and Eric Baker both had big springs and will be joined by
highly-touted two-sport star Shon Carson in the backfield as the trio will be asked to take
some pressure off of Lattimore.
While the receiving corps lost would-be senior Tori Gurley a season early when he
declared for the NFL Draft, D.L. Moore, Ace Sanders and Jason Barnes all return.
Redshirt sophomore DeAngelo Smith was the surprise of the spring and caught three
touchdowns in the spring game – he could take a big step forward after being slowed by
injuries for much of his career.
A revamped offensive line will be led by junior center T.J. Johnson, senior left tackle
Kyle Nunn and senior Kevious Watkins, who slides out to right tackle after spending last
season as a starter at guard. Redshirt freshman A.J. Cann and sixth-year senior Terrence
Campbell are now listed as starters at guard.
The biggest loss on offense could prove to be Patrick DiMarco who served as both
a fullback and tight end and was quietly one of the Gamecocks' best players. Justice
Cunningham will replace DiMarco at tight end while walk-on Dalton Wilson or Matt
Coffee should start at fullback.
Defensively, Carolina loses a leader in defensive end Cliff Matthews but adds the
nation's top-ranked prospect in the 2011 class in defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
Clowney will receive much of the fan attention but Devin Taylor, Travian Robertson and
Melvin Ingram all return from a defensive line that finished fifth in the county a season
ago with 41 sacks.
Freshman Kelcy Quarles and junior Byron Jerideau should provide
depth on the interior while Chaz Sutton will play a lot as a backup at end.
At linebacker the Gamecocks lose starters Josh Dickerson and Tony Straughter but get
back Shaq Wilson, who missed most of last season and received a medical redshirt after
suffering a hamstring injury. Wilson, who led the team in tackles in 2009, is listed as a
starter alongside sixth-year senior Rodney Paulk. Paulk has the experience but will be
pushed by Damario Jeffery, who slides inside after playing the Gamecocks' linebacker/
safety hybrid SPUR position for two seasons.
The Gamecocks were uncharacteristically subpar in the secondary last season and have
shuffled around players in an effort to fix that.
Antonio Allen, who started most of last
season at SPUR is listed as a co-starter at the position along with DeVonte Holloman,
who played his first two seasons at the boundary safety position.
Junior D.J. Swearinger played both free safety and boundary safety a season ago, but
seemed to find a home on the boundary side late in spring practice. Redshirt freshman
Jimmy Legree emerged as a playmaker at cornerback this spring but made the move to
free safety late during spring practice and is atop the depth chart at this time.
The coaches will be counting on a host of inexperienced players to provide depth at
safety in redshirt sophomore Corey Addison, redshirt freshman Sharrod Golightly and
true freshman Brison Williams, who enrolled in January after a season at prep school.
At cornerback junior Stephon Gilmore returns and appears to be taking on more of
a vocal leadership role. He'll be joined as a starter by senior Akeem Auguste, who
played the majority of two years at the position before playing last season at free safety.
Auguste is a confident cover corner who can deliver the big hit and is more comfortable
at cornerback than safety.
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