SEC PREVIEWS: Gamecocks hope for return trip

Now that the Southeastern Conference has won an unprecedented five straight national football championships, the question isn't if the league can continue the streak, but which team seems the most likely to pull off the feat.

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 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.

Gamecock Anthem Top Stories